WASHINGTON — Washington. AS HE TALKS, Lee Hamilton slips his bifocals on and off. He shifts his fork around on the breakfast table. His high forehead wrinkles beneath his crew cut. His gestures say as much as his measured words about trying to be both a conscientious congressman and a loyal citizen during this Persian Gulf crisis.
He supports President Bush, but . . . He believes Congress has a role, but . . . He thinks the signals sent from Washington are indeed the substance of the confrontation at this time -- but . . .
If Mr. Hamilton were a knee-jerk oppositionist, his role would be easy, almost as easy as that of an unquestioning yea-sayer. But he is torn, as dozens of his serious Democratic and Republican colleagues are torn, between policy caution and congressional prerogative on one hand and presenting an image of U.S. unity on the other. After an extensive canvass of his thinking, the balancing act seems to me impossible.
He notes that a United Nations resolution setting a deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait does not commit this country to war. He emphasizes that it also does not repeal the U.S. Constitution, which involves Congress ''to some degree'' in such matters.
To him, at this time, that means ''genuine consultation'' between president and legislature before any shooting starts. But it specifically does not require a congressional declaration of war, or invocation of the War Powers Act that says the president must seek congressional approval to keep troops more than 60 days where combat is imminent.
Why? Well, he says, we have made war many times but only formally declared war five times. Does that mean declaring war no longer exists as an American option? Well, no, it's not a ''dead letter.'' But the fact is that right now a declaration probably would not pass, and surely a two-thirds vote to invoke ** the War Powers Act is not there.
Even if a supportive measure passed, anything less than an overwhelming margin would send the wrong signal to Mr. Hussein. And the very debate over it would expose the division in U.S. political opinion.
Yet Mr. Hamilton's own Foreign Affairs subcommittee has scheduled a public hearing on the subject this very day. It will serve as a safety valve, going through the motions of congressional inquiry. What Congress must avoid, says Mr. Hamilton, is forcing the issue to a conclusion, whether on declaring war, invoking War Powers or a resolution giving the president a blank check to proceed as he sees fit.
He supports Mr. Bush's strategy of ratcheting up pressure on Mr. Hussein, including the deployment of major forces. He agrees that the president should not negotiate unless the Iraqi dictator first pulls out of Kuwait. Then comes a string of buts. We must not hurry toward war: ''The watchword is perseverance and patience,'' to allow sanctions time to work. While we must not negotiate, there is no harm in talking with Mr. Hussein, to be sure he understands U.S. resolve.
''Who among us is not confused about [the president's] purposes?'' he asks. He cites Mr. Bush's sudden shift of emphasis to preventing Mr. Hussein's acquiring nuclear weapons, in the immediate wake of polls showing that as the only popularly acceptable reason for going to war.
If talks should produce no change, nothing is lost, Mr. Hamilton says. If talks produce Iraqi withdrawal, they have prevented war. Should war come, the great mistake will be not having tried everything else first.
He supports Mr. Bush's original goal of getting Iraq out of Kuwait, but that does not cover ousting Mr. Hussein from power and stripping Iraq of exotic weapons. He supports the troop buildup, but disagrees with the decision to cancel rotation for those troops. And he is deeply uneasy about the bare pro forma support from America's allies.
For German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to emerge from a meeting with Mr. Bush ''and mention negotiations five times in five paragraphs'' bothers Mr. Hamilton, as it surely does Mr. Bush. Burden sharing by Germany, Japan and others offering verbal backing is essential, the congressman says, adding, ''I don't mean just money.''
Lack of full involvement by nominal allies is ''a powerful reason for not going to war,'' he believes -- his constituents in Indiana would not put up with it.
Mr. Hamilton acknowledges the tug-of-war in his own mind. ''There's some very, very tough calls here,'' he says. He speaks for himself, Congress and the country.