WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders have decided to put off for at least another week or two debate on whether to endorse or block a U.S. military strike against Iraq, giving President Bush time to explore further diplomatic initiatives.
Many in the rank and file complained, however, that Congress will not take decisive action on the issue until after Mr. Bush has already launched a military offensive. He has threatened that could occur any time after Jan. 15 if Iraq has not withdrawn completely from Kuwait.
Democratic leaders of the House and Senate emerged from a breakfast meeting with the president yesterday saying they would try to restrain their colleagues from bringing the war issue to a vote until the results of Mr. Bush's latest offer of talks with Iraq were known.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said they wanted to wait and see whether Iraq accepted the invitation to send an envoy to meet Secretary of State James A. Baker III in Switzerland next week, and then wait to learn what that meeting would produce.
A three-week recess that would have sent the lawmakers home again until Jan. 23 was canceled, but no formal business has been scheduled until then.
A rough plan outlined by House leadership aides called for a debate on some sort of war resolution to begin no sooner than Jan. 14, the day before a war could be triggered by Iraq's failure to comply with the United Nations deadline for withdrawal from Kuwait.
House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., said he was confident that there would be a debate and vote on the issue in advance of military action. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Foley also insisted that such a debate would be scheduled "at the appropriate time."
As a practical matter, though, there was so little consensus on how and when Congress should act that few believed the lawmakers would be able to do more than pass some kind of bland statement that would have little effect.
Mr. Mitchell said he told Mr. Bush yesterday that there was no way Congress could do what the president wanted: "Have a prompt and relatively brief debate and, without amendment, adopt the U.N. resolution" authorizing the use of force, or something similar to it.
Even if it were possible to restrain freewheeling debate in the Senate, Mr. Mitchell said, it was "doubtful" such a resolution would pass anyway, and certainly not by the large margin the White House believes it needs to send a message of unity to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
At the same time, efforts to curtail the possible use of force by Mr. Bush were also held back because the leaders were reluctant to risk undermining the president's threat of military action and getting blamed for spoiling the chance that Mr. Hussein could be persuaded to withdraw from Kuwait peacefully.
Mr. Mitchell quickly cut off a move by liberal Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Brock Adams of Washington for a vote on whether Mr. Bush should be allowed to make war without Congress' formal approval. But he was unable to win a unanimous agreement that would have allowed him to control what issues could be debated before Jan. 23.
Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Harkin became embroiled in a shouting match in the Senate cloak room that could be heard across the Senate floor.
"We are here. Our troops are in Saudi Arabia. Now is the time to debate it," Mr. Harkin told the Senate. "Never, never, never does it undermine the United States of America to assert our democratic principles and to debate the full meaning of the Constitution, and especially the war powers clause."
A House staffer described that chamber as torn between those who believe there must be some sort of vote on military action and those who are reluctant to be counted on the wrong side of the issue.
"Congress is in an awful trap on this," he said. "The hope was that the president would ask today for a vote on something, but he's smarter than that."
The president is also torn on the question of congressional approval for military action. The White House's position has been that it would love to have Congress "on board" but fears that a lengthy debate would be misread in Baghdad and be unhelpful to the U.S. cause.
Mr. Bush's top advisers have assured him that he does not need prior approval from Congress to launch a military offensive and that it is most unlikely that Congress will move on its own against him.
"We're just not structurally capable of giving him the 'yes' or 'no' he wants or we say he must get," said Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill. "Most members of Congress want to let the president make the decision, and if [that decision] wins they'll cheer, and if it fails they'll boo."