President Bush, urged by Senate Republicans this week to call Congress back to Washington to approve a resolution authorizing the use of force in the Persian Gulf, expressed strong reservations yesterday about a special session.
Bush met at the White House with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), both of whom urged him not to call the 101st Congress back into session. Senate Republican leaders, including Robert J. Dole (Kan.) and Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), have joined with Vice President Quayle in arguing that Bush should use yesterday's U.N. vote authorizing the use of force in the gulf to get the same sort of backing from Congress as the next step in pressuring Iraq and of forcing Democratic critics to commit themselves one way or another on the possible use of force.
Foley said after yesterday's meeting that he had urged Bush to allow the next Congress, to be sworn in on Jan. 3, to take up the debate. White House officials said Michel made the same case.
In a television interview after the session with the leaders, Bush said, "I have no plans to call them back for what you properly call a lame-duck session." The president pledged "a lot of consultations" this week and next with congressional leaders and said he was anxious "to see what they think is important." But asked again whether he was considering a special session, the president said, "No, I'm not."
Bush is to meet with a group of bipartisan leaders at the White House today.
The debate over a special session occurred as another former senior military official testified before Congress that it was a mistake to commit 430,000 troops to the region. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney are scheduled to testify before Congress next week, and the White House hopes their appearances will help shift the public emphasis away from this week's hearings in which a string of officials have questioned the president's gulf policy.
In testimony yesterday, James H. Webb Jr., who served as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Bush administration has erred in sending such a large force to Saudi Arabia and that "the president's mistake in sending so many troops should not be compounded by a further error in using them in a premature, unprovoked ground offensive."
Webb also criticized Bush for seeking authorization for offensive action from the U.N. Security Council when the White House "has no mandate" from the American people. Webb called it "perplexing and even cynical" for the administration to use the U.N. vote as "a lever to force the Congress to support offensive action."
Webb was the latest in what is becoming a parade of former high-ranking military and defense officials who have turned this week's hearings into a trial of Bush's recent strategy for forcing the Iraqis to withdraw their forces from Kuwait. His testimony echoed earlier warnings from former defense secretary and CIA director James R. Schlesinger and from two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom said that the large commitment of troops could itself drive the United States toward an offensive military action against Iraq.
The committee chairman, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), said he is open to a special session if his party's leadership wants one, but he said any debate on Persian Gulf policy would be "much more meaningful" once a consensus emerges in Congress.
If Bush wants carte blanche authority to use the offensive military option, said Nunn, "then I think he has to make the corresponding case that the current policy is not working. . . . That case has not yet been made."
One reason it has not been made is this week's series of hearings before Nunn's committee, where the Georgia Democrat, who is enormously influential on defense matters, is building a strong case for patience in the gulf. The Bush administration now appears to be paying a heavy price for its decision that it would not send any top officials to testify before Nunn's panel until after yesterday's U.N. vote.
Though some witnesses -- former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger on Wednesday and former assistant defense secretary Richard Perle yesterday -- have questioned whether economic sanctions will be sufficient, they largely have been overshadowed by those urging a continued cautious approach.
Perle told the committee yesterday that the time has come to "make the transition from buying time to using it for the broader purpose of mobilizing for the destruction of Saddam Hussein's military machine." A U.S. defeat in the gulf, said Perle, would "gravely diminish" the U.S. role and authority in the world.
In the meantime, Bush got an earful of dissent over the troop buildup in the gulf in the unlikeliest of settings -- a White House reception Wednesday afternoon for newly elected members of Congress.
Paul Wellstone, a newly elected Democratic senator from Minnesota, said he told Bush during a receiving line exchange that the country "would be ripped apart" if Bush initiated military action without provocation. He said he urged the president to give economic sanctions more time to work.
Wellstone, who also had exchanges with national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, said he left the reception "really disturbed. I think they are pushing things real fast without giving the country a chance to discuss what we are getting into."
Wellstone gave Bush a letter urging him or a member of his administration to attend a series of town meetings on the Persian Gulf he will be holding in Minnesota starting next week. Wellstone, a college professor and community organizer, also said he was considering whether to organize a protest deomonstration in Washington.