Inside the administration and on Capitol Hill, officials are debating whether Congress should be called back for an unprecedented debate and vote on a version of yesterday's U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing "all possible means" to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait.
Among those reluctant to take such action, White House officials are concerned that a bitter congressional debate and close vote could undermine the U.N. resolution, which was intended to increase pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait under threat that the United States and other nations will use the military force they have assembled against him.
Congressional critics of the U.S. offensive buildup in the Persian Gulf are worried that a resolution based on the language in the U.N. text would pass despite their opposition because members would not want to undercut the international coalition against Saddam. Approval of such language, no matter how heated the debate or how narrow the vote, would leave President Bush with what one congressional aide characterized as "a blank check."
Many more members of Congress would rather delay taking any position on merits of a debate or resolution. They support the stand of House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who told Bush yesterday that nothing should be done until the 102nd Congress comes to town in January.
But some members whose experience goes back to the Vietnam War are pushing for quick congressional action, no matter the result.
Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday that he would urge Bush at a White House meeting this afternoon to make Congress "stand up and meet its responsibility," citing the lessons of Vietnam.
Like today, Warner said, there was during the Vietnam War "constant carping and criticism" from some members of Congress "but continuing statements of support to the men and women fighting the war."
He said Bush should seek a resolution like that passed by the United Nations, and even if it is amended or defeated, "the president should know now that Congress disagrees. Other nations should know that, too," Warner added.
No resolution at all, Warner said, "was the worst situation."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a supporter of Bush's economic sanctions but sharp critic of raising the prospect of using force at this time, also wants Congress to vote before Christmas on the issue.
"If we don't act, we are acquiescing," Kennedy said, noting the Vietnam experience.
Kennedy called the U.N. resolution "a constructive step and an impressive achievement" by the Bush administration. But he said he wants to change the U.N. deadline authorizing use of force from Jan. 15, 1991, to Aug. 2, 1991 -- first anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait -- giving the sanctions additional time to have an effect on Saddam.
Kennedy said he would like to see a debate and vote the week of Dec. 17, after hearings with administration witnesses before Senate and House committees now in progress are concluded.
He said some Senate colleagues who agree with his position want to wait until January, because they feel some members of Congress "might be stampeded" by upcoming testimony of Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
Members involved in drafting an earlier congressional resolution of support for Bush's initial actions last August have begun to discuss modifications in the U.N. language that would be necessary to gain strong Capitol Hill support.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, said he understood Bush wanted congressional support "to ratchet up the pressure" on Saddam. But, Hamilton said, the U.N. resolution language needed "protection for congressional authority to declare war."
Hamilton also said that unless the congressional resolution were to get a substantial vote, "it will not signal resolve, it will be a signal of revision" of the U.N. position.
Even if a vote by Congress were delayed until January, congressional authorization of actions already mandated by the United Nations would be precedent-setting.
In June 1950, when President Harry S Truman ordered U.S. ground troops into South Korea after the invasion by North Korea, he informed congressional leaders of his action but did not ask for a resolution of support or a declaration of war.
A Security Council resolution authorizing U.N. members to "furnish such assistance to the republic of South Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack" was all Truman had. Thereafter, Congress approved funds to pay for the U.S. forces.
In 1965, when then-Sen. J. W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and members of his panel proposed to the Johnson administration that they have a declaration of war or a resolution beyond the Tonkin Gulf resolution to support the increased fighting in Vietnam, they were told in a closed April 1965 hearing that the debate and vote on such a measure might hurt the war effort.
A declaration of war, then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the members, "would almost certainly set off a chain reaction and make it more difficult to keep this matter under some sort of control."
As for a new resolution, Rusk said, "I don't quite know what the Congress would wish to say." At the time, there were 34,000 U.S. fighting men in Vietnam, and although Rusk warned that additional forces were needed, he pleaded that President Lyndon B. Johnson had to have "freedom of action."
He added that the numbers needed would be "quite substantial" and Congress putting them in a resolution "could be inflammatory and increase the risks of larger reaction from the other side."