WASHINGTON -- President Bush came under renewed bipartisan pressure from congressional leaders yesterday to make more strenuous efforts to solve the Persian Gulf crisis diplomatically before resorting to war.
"I have sort of a gut feeling the American people are not yet committed to war, and they want to make certain that President Bush has done everything, pursued every avenue for peace, before the firing starts," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Mr. Dole, R-Kan., later added: "The American people do not want war." The gulf crisis, together with the state of the economy, he said, make this "make-or-break time" for the Bush presidency, he said.
Mr. Dole said he had spoken by telephone Saturday night with Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Mohamed Al-Mashat, who indicated "some flexibility" on a date for Secretary of State James A. Baker III to meet with President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
Publicly, Iraq has refused to suggest a date other than Jan. 12, which the United States rejects as too close to the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. The United States has offered to meet no later than Jan. 3, although officials say privately that a somewhat later date could be possible.
"I would say, yes, there's got to be some flexibility" on the U.S. side, Mr. Dole said. He urged Mr. Bush to "pursue at least one additional time figuring out a date so that Secretary Baker can go to Baghdad and Foreign Minister [Tariq] Aziz can come to Washington."
A Dole aide said the senator had contacted the Iraqi ambassador, one of many summoned to Baghdad for consultations last week, to confirm reports from an "independent source" that Mr. Hussein was willing to see Mr. Baker before Jan. 12.
But a U.S. official said that as of yesterday afternoon there had been no progress on setting up high-level meetings.
Two prominent House Democrats, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin of Wisconsin and Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, chairman of a foreign affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, said a high-level meeting was essential before a decision to go to war.
"I don't think the American people will support sending Americans into combat until you've exhausted all other remedies," Mr. Hamilton said.
The leaders' comments, after a holiday recess during which congressmen have tried to gauge public attitudes about the crisis, appeared to dilute a White House effort to persuade Mr. Hussein that he faces inevitable military action if he fails to meet the U.N. pullout date.
The comments came as the European Community scheduled a meeting of its foreign ministers on Friday to hold emergency talks on the gulf crisis. Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, whose country assumes the EC presidency this week, told Reuters that the community was considering inviting Mr. Aziz because of the failure of efforts to arrange high-level contacts between Washington and Baghdad.
"We will make an assessment of the general situation, and in consultation with other allies, we will try to send a final message to Baghdad which would be in line with U.N. resolutions but would also consider what would happen after Iraq leaves Kuwait," Mr. Poos said.
He said that if EC ministers decided to seek a meeting with Mr. Aziz, contact would be made immediately with Baghdad to try to arrange this as quickly as possible, even next weekend.
Mr. Aspin said the administration had handled the dispute with Iraq over meeting dates "rather badly," since a senior U.S. military official had said U.S. troops won't be fully ready to fight by Jan. 16 in any event.
"If we're not going to go to war on the 16th or any time within, say, a two-week period of that, then why not have the meeting with Saddam Hussein on Jan. 12?" Mr. Aspin asked.
The two House members differed on whether the current forms of pressure on Iraq -- the threat of force coupled with economic sanctions -- would work.
"My belief at this point in time is we should stay with our present strategy and not go to war," Mr. Hamilton said.
Mr. Aspin disagreed on the utility of sanctions but said that a diplomatic solution "is entirely possible."
"I also think there are some things that Baker might be able to arrange quietly. . . . I think that the main thing is pulling out of Kuwait entirely. There's other things we can agree to around the edges."
This appeared to be a reference to subsequent negotiations with Kuwait and no demands for reparations from Iraq.
Mr. Bush has invited congressional leaders to the White House Thursday to give them an update on the gulf crisis. But the members' comments yesterday left cloudy the prospects for a vote authorizing him to use force against Iraq.
Mr. Dole said that if Congress can't demonstrate a "united front" by passing a resolution similar to the Nov. 29 U.N. Security Council vote authorizing the use of force, then "we just sort of stay on hold" until after Jan. 15.
Mr. Aspin said the president must commit himself to seeking a congressional vote on the use of force. But Mr. Hamilton said that unless there were "very, very broad support" for such a resolution, bringing it to the floor would undermine the effort to keep pressure on Mr. Hussein.