The White House yesterday responded to growing criticism of the U.S. troop buildup in the Persian Gulf by offering reassurances that President Bush intends to consult with Congress "every step of the way."

The reassurances came as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Middle East, added his voice to those who have accused Bush of rushing toward war with Iraq without adequately consulting them, the American people or the United Nations.

"It's as if that great armed force which was created to fight the Cold War is at the president's own disposal for any diversion he may wish, no matter what it costs," Moynihan said.

"He will wreck our military. He will wreck his administration, and he'll spoil a chance to get a collective security system working. It breaks your heart," Moynihan said on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America."

In another development, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has scheduled a news conference today at which he is expected to ask the president to reconvene Congress in order to debate a declaration of war against Iraq.

A source familiar with Lugar's thinking said the senator generally favored last week's military buildup but believed a declaration of war would give Bush "sufficient credibility to get {Iraqi President Saddam} Hussein to back down." The official said Lugar was acting alone.

Other words of caution came yesterday from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. At their annual meeting here, the bishops voted 249 to 15 to approve a resolution that urges the United States to press Iraq for a nonviolent solution and, failing that, to wage no more than "limited war" sparing civilian targets. The bishops are to decide Wednesday whether to toughen the language used in the resolution.

The same day Bush has scheduled the latest of his meetings with congressional leaders on the Persian Gulf situation. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater expressed surprise yesterday that some leading Democrats had charged that Bush -- by deciding last week to nearly double U.S. troops in the Middle East -- was rushing into war. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and others made comments to that effect on network talk shows Sunday.

"Not a shot's been fired," Fitzwater said. "What are these guys talking about?"

Fitzwater said Bush would continue to consult Congress, but added there could be unforeseen circumstances that would require the president to act militarily without prior approval from lawmakers.

"He will follow the constitutional requirements, and we would want to consult with the Congress every step of the way," Fitzwater told reporters. "But there are always those unforeseen kinds of provocations that might result in having to move first."

Fitzwater said the president had told congressional leaders the same thing before Congress adjourned. He suggested that the newest deployment of U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf region, announced by Bush last week, did not represent a dramatic policy change. "We've talked all along about augmenting our forces," he said.

Bush waved off reporters' questions about the Democratic criticism when he arrived at the White House yesterday afternoon after a round of golf.

Moynihan, a former ambassador to the United Nations, said Bush had not let the economic sanctions against Iraq stay in place long enough to exact a toll. "How long is long enough?" Moynihan said in an interview. "I'll tell you how long is not long enough -- three months."

One military expert, retired Army Col. Harry Summers, who lectures at war colleges, said Bush has not done enough to win congressional support for his military policy in the Persian Gulf.

"I think the president ought to listen to them," Summers said. "I think it's very stupid of the president not to get Congress on board. I think that was one of the big mistakes of the Vietnam war."

In Birmingham, Ala., the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Colin L. Powell, yesterday defended the decision to send U.S. troops to the Middle East. "It would have been so easy to turn away, to overlook what happened," Powell said in a Veterans Day speech. "After all, Kuwait is a very small country. We don't even know where it is on the map, even though it has lots of oil."

Powell said that "We don't want war . . . but if war comes, we and our allies will win it. . . . Saddam Hussein isn't the first boastful tyrant we've faced and beaten."

Offering five reasons for the military intervention, Powell said: "We are doing this for the people of Kuwait, for our other friends in the region, for our own economic interest, for the safety of Americans who are in danger, and for the promise of a safer new world where disputes will not be solved in war."

A copy of Powell's prepared remarks was released in Washington.

Staff writers Dan Balz, Lynda Richardson and R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.