WASHINGTON -- By all appearances, lawmakers returning to Capitol Hill today are as uneasy about the Persian Gulf and as anxious about the economy as anyone else -- and just as unlikely to know what to do.
When the 102nd Congress formally convenes at noon, it will confront the grim possibilities of war abroad and protracted recession at home. How it will confront them is another question.
Uncertain, for example, is the schedule following the day's ceremonies, in which members elected last fall are sworn into office.
Usually, a new Congress heads home as soon as it inaugurates '' itself, returning in time for the president's annual State of the Union address. This year's address is scheduled for Jan. 29, however -- 14 days after the United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Lawmakers have been told to be in Washington on a moment's notice, in case war with Iraq is imminent.
What Congress would do in that event is less than clear. Congressional Democrats have been agitating for a promise from President Bush that he would seek a declaration of war from Congress before attacking Iraqi forces encamped in Kuwait. Democratic leaders were expected to renew that call this morning, when they join top Republicans at the White House for a Persian Gulf briefing from Mr. Bush.
A few Republicans, notably Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., have joined the chorus, arguing that the president needs to pursue every available diplomatic option before committing to a course of war, or risk splitting the country.
Administration officials have refused to concede any such point, telling reporters the president has all the constitutional authority he needs to wage war against Iraq without congressional approval. They have urged Congress to adopt a resolution similar to the document adopted by the U.N. Security Council, which approved the use of force against Iraq if it did not vacate Kuwait by Jan. 15.
"We aren't going to ask them to come back and take a vote," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
That reluctance springs from the prevailing congressional arithmetic. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., has suggested that a resolution approving military force could be passed, but by the kind of narrow margin that might send a dubious signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, has flatly predicted that a U.N.-style measure would probably fail.
A few other lawmakers have contended that the White House's policy may encourage Congress to take matters into its own hands.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., has suggested that Congress might pass a resolution approving sanctions rather than military action. Mr. Gephardt has also said that Congress could halt funding for Operation Desert Shield if the president were to launch a war without its permission -- although he hastened to add that lawmakers would be reluctant to do so.
Indeed, Congress may remain characteristically reluctant to take any clear-cut position on the administration's policy -- until, that is, ultimate victory or defeat is evident.
Rank-and-file House Democrats, for example, voteoverwhelmingly last month to support a resolution calling on the president to seek congressional approval before launching an offensive against Iraq. Representative Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a co-author of the resolution, said he would ask his leaders to extract that promise from Mr. Bush and, if the president refused, to bring the measure to the floor for a vote.
But Democratic leadership aides said no such resolution would come to the floor amid the many diplomatic uncertainties.
One aide told of the difficult time he had finding lawmakers willing to support Mr. Durbin's resolution.
"There's so much uncertainty out there," the aide said. "No one wants to commit to anything until they see how things play out."
Issues facing the 102nd Congress
* ECONOMY. Democratic leaders will discuss a variety of major initiatives aimed at fighting recession, though the federal government's omnipresent deficit prevents them from resorting to many of the usual tactics, such as tax cuts or jobs programs. Nevertheless, expansion of federal job training programs, unemployment insurance and highway, airport and other employment-boosting "infrastructure" projects are under study. The recession could provide an impetus to calls for a cut in Social Security taxes.
* CIVIL RIGHTS. Democrats will push again for a bill to overturn an array of recent Supreme Court decisions that made it harder for workers to win discrimination suits. Last year they were unable to override President Bush's veto of such legislation.
* TROUBLED BANKS AND THRIFTS. The administration is preparing to announce major banking reforms, and Congress -- fearful that endemic weaknesses in the banking, savings and loan and insurance industries could trigger a catastrophe -- appears ready to back a thorough examination of U.S. financial institutions.