President Bush has initiated private discussions with members of Congress on the possible use of military force in the Persian Gulf to meet in advance any congressional objections that could arise if he sends U.S. troops into battle there, according to administration and Capitol Hill sources.
With Congress planning to adjourn for the year on Oct. 19 and the likelihood that there would be no specific congressional authorization for military action, Bush is said to recognize he faces a possible uproar from members of Congress if he commits U.S. forces to battle without clear provocation while Congress is out of town.
The president is using the sessions to get the views of members on the gulf crisis and possibly enlist support for future actions, the sources said.
There has been one publicized meeting and additional private sessions at the White House since Sept. 14. Only a few members, including chairmen of several key House and Senate subcommittees on defense, have so far been involved, but more are expected in the weeks ahead.
In closed session, Bush or his aides have laid out a number of possible scenarios for future developments in the gulf including one involving use of U.S. air power in conjunction with friendly Arab ground troops to regain Kuwait, according to congressional sources. U.S. forces number more than 200,000, and Arab and European forces total another 100,000 in the region.
Underlying the president's approach to these meetings is the dispute that has continued since Vietnam over war powers, when the constitutional authority of a president as commander-in-chief was used to send troops into battle without prior approval of Congress, or a subsequent declaration of war. As the Vietnam conflict worsened, Congress increasingly blamed the situation on the Johnson administration's failure to seek a declaration of war in 1964.
As a former House member, Bush understands it is important that Congress view any future use of force in the Persian Gulf as a "joint venture" with him, according to Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, himself a former House member.
"If hostilities develop, it is important that Congress be on board and supportive," Cheney said in an interview.
At the same time, however, Cheney said that Bush is commander-in-chief and a decision on use of forces is "best made by him."
After going over "what the Iraqis are doing, what the intelligence shows and what other governments are doing and saying," one Capitol Hill source said, "Bush opens the floor for questions and expressions of views."
He asked some legislators at a meeting, "What would you do?" recalled one congressman who participated in a White House session.
Some members have advised Bush of their "concerns about going on the offensive, their desire to wait longer for the sanctions to work and not using force unless it is under U.N. auspices," according to a source.
Another noted that in at least one session, a few members encouraged him to strike soon.
This informal approach has included at least one closed session on Capitol Hill where Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense for a conversation without a record being made.
In the past week, the House and Senate by overwhelming votes approved non-binding resolutions backing Bush's actions so far in the gulf. But during the debate, Congress made clear it was not giving authority to the president to initiate unprovoked action by U.S. forces without further congressional consultation.
However, Cheney said he does not believe Congress by legislation can compel consultation prior to the use of force. Each use of force is "unique," Cheney said.
"It is very hard to write a set of ground rules that the president will do this and Congress will do that." He said, "Such language tends to be inhibiting. I don't know how you can guarantee consultation, particularly in a formal way."
With the smile of a congressional insider, he added, "Some members want consultation more than others."
Prior to the August deployment of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia as a response to Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, the White House kept key legislators informed.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) were among the few who received calls from Bush, Cheney and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, sources said.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was briefed by the CIA by secure telephone and at one point a CIA official flew to Oklahoma to give him a private review of events, according to congressional sources.
But the White House withheld some information from most members of Congress, even after the Aug. 8 deployment of U.S. military forces to Saudi Arabia began.
Cheney is quite open about the benefits to the administration of making military deployments while Congress is in recess.
"As a former member, I have to say it was an advantage that Congress was out of town" when the initial Persian Gulf deployment took place, Cheney said.
As a result, "we could spend August doing what had to be done rather than explaining it" to congressional committees, he said.
Chaney said he believes the administration must make "a good-faith effort" to keep Congress informed, but "without legislation."
For example, although prepared to talk informally with members, the White House turned down an attempt by Mitchell and others to include in a Persian Gulf resolution the establishment of a bipartisan congressional panel that would consult with the president.
Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.), who has introduced a resolution to establish such a commission, said its purpose was to make certain that advice from non-administration aides reached the president. The tendency in any White House, said former Cabinet member Adams, was "you more and more shut out the dissenters, particularly if a president wants to go a particular way."
Bush also has joined with his White House predecessors in refusing to comply with the 1974 War Powers Act. It requires a president who commits U.S. forces to "imminent hostility" to inform Congress of his actions and get congressional approval within 60 days.
Cheney has a unique perspective of the ongoing debate over war powers. He was White House chief of staff for President Gerald R. Ford in 1974 when the War Powers Act passed Congress, over the president's veto. Thereafter he was a member of the House and now runs the Pentagon.
"I didn't like the War Powers legislation when I was in the Ford White House, didn't like it as a member of Congress, and don't now as defense secretary," Cheney said.
He called the act a "solution that Congress came up with after Vietnam that they think would have avoided the war if it had been there in 1964."