WASHINGTON -- President Bush hinted broadly to a federal judge last night that he may ask Congress to give specific approval before any U.S. military attack on Iraq.
Speaking through Justice Department lawyers, Mr. Bush told U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene, "At no time has the administration stated that it will not seek congressional authorization for any particular action it takes."
The president's lawyers conceded that up to now there has been only a promise that Congress would be "consulted" and no suggestion that it would be asked to approve military combat in advance.
But, the lawyers added, "neither has anything been rejected. The president has never said that he will not seek congressional authorization prior to the use of force."
The president's arguments to Judge Greene came as his lawyers challenged the right of 45 Democratic members of Congress to sue him in an attempt to force the president to ask Congress' permission before launching action in the Persian Gulf.
The Democrats' lawsuit picked up support yesterday from 11 law-school professors who urged Judge Greene to rule that the president must get "genuine approval" from Congress before launching an assault.
The president's plea to Judge Greene last night did note that Mr. Bush, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and others had been arguing that the administration was obliged only to consult Congress.
But, the lawyers added, "the administration's view of what is minimally required under the Constitution is no indication of what it might do beyond that."
Even as the president and his aides were lobbying at the United Nations to get the Security Council's approval for the United States to use force against Iraq, the president's lawyers were telling Judge Greene that "the unleashing of an offensive military action is entirely hypothetical at this point."
If the judge were to act to support the Democrats' claim that the president is forced by the Constitution to ask for congressional approval, the president's attorneys said, it "might tie the president's hands or otherwise upset the continuing diplomatic effort in a way that would make 'war' with Iraq more, and not less, likely."
Noting that Congress had scheduled hearings to begin next week on U.S. military action in the gulf region, Mr. Bush's attorneys said that the Democrats' lawsuit "has the potential to short-circuit the political process."
Earlier in the day, the law professors argued in their filing in support of the Democrats' lawsuit that Congress must either declare war outright or else take some step to give "affirmative authorization . . . through formal action" before the president may commit U.S. forces to combat in the gulf region.