WASHINGTON -- More than five months after Saddam Hussein's forces stormed into Kuwait, Congress appeared ready yesterday to give President Bush a green light to drive Iraq from its conquest.
"We in the Congress have our role to play, and we can't shirk our responsibility," said House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois. "Either we stop Saddam now and stop him permanently, or we won't stop him at all."
Lawmakers formally began debating the merits of competing resolutions. One, backed by the White House and congressional Republicans, would authorize President Bush to launch a military offensive against Iraqi divisions; another, written by Democrats, would direct him to pursue a diplomatic course.
Members of both parties generally expected Mr. Bush's position to prevail and Congress to grant him the permission he has insisted he does not need to go to war.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said he favored a continuation of sanctions and diplomatic efforts to pry Iraq from Kuwait. He acknowledged, however, that the apparent diplomatic standoff between the United States and Iraq had strengthened the hand of those who would back the White House's current strategy.
"I am sure there are some members who feel that the failure of the Baker mission [in Geneva Wednesday] makes it more likely that they will vote for authorization," he said.
Another Democrat, Representative Stephen J. Solarz, N.Y., said that after Geneva, a congressional vote permitting the president to attack Iraqi troops was "the last, best hope for a peaceful resolution."
Although such a vote appears inevitable to many, it is not to be cast before lawmakers have subjected the president's policy to a discussion that is unlikely to call Mr. Bush's goals into question, only his tactics.
"This is not a debate about American objectives in the current crisis," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine. "There is broad agreement . . . that Iraq must, fully and unconditionally, withdraw its forces from Kuwait. The issue is how to best achieve that goal."
The debate yesterday took place against a backdrop of increasing pessimism about war.
Indeed, preparations for war, long under way in and around Kuwait, have begun to be felt on Capitol Hill itself, where Capitol police appear to have been put on alert for possible terrorism. Members and staff have been told to watch for suspicious-looking individuals and packages. Police have begun checking visitors, press and staff passing through metal detectors with new attention.
Even Capitol police appear to be under scrutiny. Internal affairs personnel, for example, have been attempting to enter buildings with phony passes in an effort to check the vigilance of entrance guards.
Meanwhile, the Senate and House began debates that are expected to culminate in weekend votes. Congressional champions of Mr. Bush's gulf policy unveiled a resolution clearing the president "to use United States armed forces" to back up U.N. goals of freeing Kuwait and restoring its government.
At the same time, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced resolutions avoiding the use of offensive military force for now and asserting that continued use of international sanctions and diplomacy "is the wisest course at this time and should be sustained."
The Democratic resolutions also state that the Constitution gives "all power to declare war" to Congress and promise that lawmakers will give quick consideration to any presidential request for war authority.
Maryland's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, are co-sponsors of the Democratic resolution.
In the House, three of Maryland's eight members have said they would endorse a measure that would authorize the use of force: Representatives Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, Tom McMillen, D-4th, and Beverly B. Byron, D-6th. Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, said she was leaning toward that resolution.
Representatives Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, and Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, have said they favor a policy of continued sanctions and diplomacy.
Representatives Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, and Constance A. Morella, R-8th, have yet to take a position.