President Bush yesterday faced sharp questioning from congressional leaders on whether he is trying to create a new rationale for military action in the Persian Gulf by putting strong new emphasis on the treatment of Americans held hostage in Iraq and Kuwait.

Bush met with about 15 congressional leaders from both parties who are involved in foreign policy before holding a two-hour session on the gulf with his top foreign affairs advisers.

Administration officials declined to provide details of the session with the foreign policy advisers, but one said it was aimed at reaching a consensus on gulf policy that Secretary of State James A. Baker III can discuss with leaders in Europe and the Middle East when he travels there at week's end. The options discussed, one official said, involved additional troop deployment plus broader issues of Baker's mission.

Rep. Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said congressional leaders told Bush, "If there is additional provocation {by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein}, it better be real and able to stand up to press scrutiny."

Another official said, "The president was asked more or less directly if the administration were using this as a pretext for a military action. Why all the new rhetoric of the last two days? What is changed?"

Several of the members of Congress said Bush, while not ruling out a military option, had implied that option was not imminent. According to one official, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) told Bush he hoped yesterday's meeting was not the last he would have with congressional leaders in advance of some action. "Barring something that necessitates quick action," more consultations will occur before the 102nd Congress convenes in January, a congressional official said Bush replied.

Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) said Bush's patience "is growing thin" and that Bush is increasingly frustrated by the plight of the Americans held in Kuwait and in Iraq. Both Bush and Baker this week have drawn attention to the Americans, accusing Saddam of holding them in barbaric conditions and in violation of international law.

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) said Bush had expressed "strong concerns" on that issue during the meeting at the White House. But he and others said that when Bush was asked whether the Americans were being mistreated or if their conditions had changed significantly since the August invasion, no new information was provided by Bush or his advisers.

A State Department official said that comments by Bush and Baker about the hostages' conditions were based on letters from the hostages smuggled out and on eyewitness accounts given to U.S. officials.

According to Fascell, Bush drew analogies to World War II, as he has repeatedly in recent days, to describe the conditions for hostages as "horrible, barbarous." But Mitchell and Cohen challenged Bush by saying they had recently been briefed by U.S. intelligence agencies and received no information of worsening problems for the Americans. The two suggested, officials said, that if conditions are worsening in the gulf, neither the Congress nor the public has been adequately prepared for direct military intervention.

Another official said that, although the session was not acrimonious, it "reflected some deep skepticism" about whether Bush is attempting to shift the U.S. focus from its original goal of defending Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi advance and using international sanctions to pressure Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait to one of protecting Americans there.

"They were asking, in not so many words: Is this trumped up? If it isn't, how come we just have started hearing about it this week in the middle of this political mess the president is in? It seems to be coming out of nowhere," a Democratic congressman said of the sense of skepticism in the meeting. Others suggested that the Bush and Baker comments were a politically motivated attempt to direct public attention away from the budget fiasco a week before next Tuesday's elections.

After the session, Mitchell said he did not know if Bush was trying to lay the groundwork for a change in policy. "My view is no such change is warranted at this time. No one I know advocates going to another option" now, Mitchell said.

But officials said Bush heard from at least one congressman who believed military action was inevitable. One source said, "There were voices in the room that said in effect that Bush had no choice but to go in and the sooner the better."

According to one Democrat, the majority of congressional leaders agreed that "nobody is forswearing force," but they urged Bush to sit tight, continue to work with the international community and to maintain the alliance of nations lined up against Saddam.

One official said a "significant amount of time" was spent discussing the U.S. diplomats being held at the embassy in Kuwait, with Bush expressing "deep frustration" about their situation. Bush called that "a great dilemma" for him because the United States lacks a viable military option for protecting the diplomats and worried aloud about the symbolic damage if the American flag were lowered and the diplomats taken by Saddam, the official said.

The session, arranged by the White House, was part of the administration's response to strong pressure from Congress to continue consultations on the gulf through the congressional recess. Administration officials have pledged to consult, but not necessarily to seek approval from Congress, before significant new steps are taken in the gulf.

Staff writer David S. Broder contributed to this report.