Congressional committee staffs are scrambling to prepare committee members for visible roles in connection with the Persian Gulf crisis when Congress returns to Washington after its summer recess next month.
Invitations have gone out from the House and Senate Armed Services committees to hear from Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and from the House Foreign Affairs and the Senate Foreign Relations committees for testimony from Secretary of State James A. Baker III. Sept. 11, the first day lawmakers are expected back in Washington from the recess, is the preferred date for committee appearances by administration officials.
While those four committees traditionally deal with foreign and military crises, other panels are also preparing action in connection with the developments in the gulf. House Government Operations Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) pulled his top staff members in for a "brainstorming session" just days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, according to a committee spokesman. Out of that came plans for a hearing, now set for Sept. 5, on the "long-term energy and economic impact of the Persian Gulf crisis," the aide said.
A few committees are looking at specific actions.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff is studying the possibility of passage of a resolution authorizing the administration's military actions, much as was done in 1983 to support President Ronald Reagan's decision to send Marine units to Lebanon.
As part of this exercise, Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) on Aug. 23 requested that President Bush supply the panel with documentation on the requests from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for U.S. military assistance.
"We assume there is something in writing from the two," a senior committee aide said yesterday in noting that Bush referred to "requests from those two countries" in his letter last week informing the committee of his actions in response to the Iraqi invasion.
A congressional resolution, the aide said, "would protect" both the president and the Congress by formally recording the objectives of the administration's policy and the duration of the U.S. military commitment.
Pell is expected to discuss what the committee will do with other panel members who are accompanying him this weekend on a trip to the gulf area, the staff aide said.
On the other side of the Capitol, the House Foreign Affairs Committee senior staff met yesterday to consider what one source said was the likelihood that Congress is "going to be faced with some sort of vote on the issue."
One source said the discussion included the danger that passage of a congressional resolution on the gulf crisis "could turn into a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" -- a reference to the 1964 congressional action that President Lyndon B. Johnson used as the basis for open-ended authorization of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
The House Armed Services Committee, at the direction of chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), set up a staff task force within days of the Iraqi invasion. The group has been studying both military and diplomatic issues and preparing for hearings when members return.
The possible topics for hearings, according to one source, include the adequacy of the military sealift and constraints on airlift capacity because of a lack of sophisticated unloading equipment on the ground in Saudi Arabia.
A few committees are unable to act because they lack needed information. The House and Senate budget committees, which are involved in budget negotiations with the White House that are scheduled to resume next week at Andrews Air Force Base, need cost estimates on the gulf deployments.
They have requested figures from the Congressional Budget Office, but sources there said yesterday the information they have received from the Pentagon is no more detailed than the figures given to the news media.
The congressional budget analysis group is attempting to put together its own cost figures but as of yesterday was relying on planning factors it had for such a deployment and not the actual deployment cost figures, a staff member said.