President Bush has called key congressional leaders to the White House Thursday to provide what officials yesterday called "an update" on the Persian Gulf as the new Congress is sworn in and heads toward a decision on whether and when to authorize military action against Iraq.
A senior administration official said the session "is simply an opportunity to give them an update on the diplomatic and military situation" and does not signify that Bush will ask for formal authorization. The congressional leadership group is similar to the one Bush has met with several times since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August. It includes key bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate and chairmen and ranking minority members of several committees that deal with foreign policy and military issues.
The president, the official said, "just wants to touch base" after the holiday period and has not decided to seek immediate approval for use of force. "We see no reason to go to Congress Jan. 3 on this issue. We know there will be a debate, but it doesn't have to begin the day they come back," the official said.
Bush is expected to remain at Camp David until New Year's Day, when he and other key advisers return to Washington. As Bush continued his holiday yesterday, Vice President Quayle left for a four-day visit to the gulf that will include visiting the troops and meeting with Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders. He returns Wednesday.
The White House has maintained that unless it can get broad support for a resolution similar to the U.N. resolution authorizing use of force against Iraq, it is better off with no resolution. Bush has spoken of fears Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might misinterpret a contentious congressional debate as evidence Bush's hands are tied by a divided government.
But administration officials have spoken increasingly of the "inevitability" of what one calls "a mega-debate," and have begun preliminary discussions on what kind of resolution is obtainable.
The Thursday session was planned to coincide with the return of Congress that day for the formal ceremonies of swearing in new members and completing reorganization for the new session. Congressional leaders have not decided whether to keep the leadership in Washington after next week, or to hold pro forma sessions for the entire Congress until its formal opening at the end of the month. Many of the leaders want to be on hand at least when the Jan. 15 U.N. deadline for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait passes.
Two administration officials said yesterday they believe that Congress will put off any formal effort to address the gulf situation until Jan. 15 because, as one put it, "so much can change so quickly." That official said there remains a chance that a visit by Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Baghdad can be scheduled within the next week, or that Saddam could make some move that alters the current situation in the gulf.
Bush's plan to meet with congressional leaders comes as he expressed a "gut" feeling that Saddam will withdraw from Kuwait. In a year-end interview with Time magazine, for whom Bush is the Man of the Year, the president said, "My gut says he will get out of there."
In the interview, Bush repeated that there can be no compromise on the basic conditions that Iraq withdraw completely and that the exiled government be restored in Kuwait.
Time said it picked "the two sides" of Bush to feature as its Man of the Year, noting his interest and expertise in foreign policy and his lack of accomplishment in domestic affairs, a dichotomy widely noted this year.