As threat of war looms,U.S.intensifies preparations Congress expected to back Bush on gulf

January 10, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Yesterday's diplomatic failure in Geneva appears to have increased the likelihood that Congress will clearly back President Bush if he chooses to launch an offensive strike against Iraqi troops lodged in Kuwait.

"I think the president's position will prevail," said Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee. "The Iraqis certainly haven't helped themselves."

Formal congressional debate is to begin today on U.S. gulf policy, with lawmakers choosing between an administration-backed resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraqi troops and a Democratic-authored alternative seeking continued pursuit of a diplomatic solution.

"They're bailing out right and left," said one prominent sponsor of the Democratic alternative, speaking of his resolution's erstwhile supporters. "Saddam Hussein is the best lobbyist George Bush could have."

The House is set to vote Saturday. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said he hoped the Senate would vote before Tuesday's United Nations-imposed deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.

The last time Congress voted explicitly on the matter of war and peace, 26 years ago, it passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, widely credited as the carte blanche President Lyndon B. Johnson used to embroil U.S. forces in Vietnam. With that in mind, many lawmakers -- mostly Democrats -- had expressed deep concerns about handing Mr. Bush authority to wage war at will.

Separate resolutions were drafted by House and Senate Democrats that approve of Mr. Bush's initial Persian Gulf strategy, defined as the use of sanctions and diplomacy to force Iraq out of Kuwait. They state that it would be premature to resort to military force in the immediate future and require the president to ask congressional permission for an attack.

In the House, White House lobbyists have lined up a bipartisan list of co-sponsors, who represent the liberal, moderate and conservative wings of both parties. Their version of the resolution would formally authorize the use of U.S. armed forces against Iraq once the president certified to congressional leaders that all diplomatic means and economic pressures had been exhausted.

A few Democrats, opposed to the immediate use of force, still stood by their guns, though their ranks appeared to have been thinned.

Mr. Mitchell said that allied sanctions had not been given a chance to wreak full damage on the Iraqi economy. He did say that he would not rule out the use of force "as a last resort if all other means fail."

Some Republicans accused Democrats of pursuing a political agenda through their opposition.

"The Republican strategy is to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait," said Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas. "I'm afraid some of the Democratic strategy is to get Bush out of the White House."

The newest member of the Maryland delegation -- Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st -- said he sent a letter of support to Mr. Bush after the president's news conference. "He realized the importance of Congress supporting the president," said aide Tony Caligiuri.

He said the congressman's office received 30 to 40 calls from constituents after the news conference, with most supporting the president.

Charles Black, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said public backing for Mr. Bush's policies would grow if Congress authorized military action.

But Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart said, "You've got a country that is sort of bracing for war, rather than embracing war. Polls may suggest that we're all foursquare behind the Bush administration. I think it's a lot more divided than that."

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