WASHINGTON — Concerned that the United States is rushing headlong toward a
full-scale military confrontation with Iraq, many Congressional Democrats and
a growing number of Republicans are urging the Bush administration to provide
a public accounting of its plans.
The Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on Iraq before leaving for the summer recess in early August, and the Republican-controlled House International Relations Committee intends to do the same in late August or September, Congressional officials said today.
Congressional officials said the White House had expressed reservations about taking part in the hearings because President Bush had not yet decided how to achieve his stated goal of removing President Saddam Hussein from power. But a senior administration official said no decision had been made.
Democrats and Republicans said there was broad bipartisan support for ousting Mr. Hussein, even if that requires a military invasion if other options fail. But many said they were concerned that the administration was moving toward a major commitment of American troops under a veil of secrecy, with too little consultation with Congress. Members complain that much of what they know comes from news leaks.
Some Democrats also assert that the administration must seek Congressional approval before mounting an invasion, under the War Powers Resolution, though that issue is being hotly contested within the party.
In 1991, President George Bush sought and received Congressional approval for the military operation against Iraqi troops in Kuwait. But he asserted that he was not obligated to request that authority, and had done so purely as a courtesy to Congress. Most Democrats in Congress at the time voted against authorizing the military action.
But even lawmakers who believe that the White House can attack Iraq without prior Congressional approval contend that President Bush would greatly strengthen his position with Congress, the American public and the nation's allies by airing and vigorously defending his broad intentions.
"We need a national dialogue," said Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska. "If the United States decides to take action against Iraq, Americans need to understand the risks and objectives."
Mr. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, added, "That was a debate we didn't have with Vietnam."
Lawmakers from both parties said they also felt the need to begin debate soon because of recent administration steps that seemed to tilt toward military action.
On Tuesday, the deputy secretary of defense, Paul D. Wolfowitz, met with officials in Turkey to discuss military cooperation in the event of an invasion, which would almost certainly require the use of Turkish bases. And last month Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of United States forces in the Persian Gulf, briefed President Bush on the conceptual outlines of an invasion.
Though few in Congress expect the administration to disclose detailed plans, many legislators say the time has come for a more robust discussion of several issues, including the threat from Iraqi chemical weapons, whether the administration sees any potential successors to Mr. Hussein, the views of European and Arab allies and whether the White House has a strategy for extricating American troops after an invasion.
"I am convinced that a regime change in Iraq is in the best interest of the United States and also our allies," said Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a centrist Democrat from California. "But if they are putting the green light on this, they better bring this over and start talking to us. They can't just say, `Trust us.' "
A senior House Republican official said members of his party were also concerned that the White House was moving swiftly toward an invasion. Some administration officials have said the ideal time might be early next year, before the summer.
"They have to make a case for military action," the Republican official said. "You have Wolfowitz in the region today, you have the administration engaged in the issue. Congress by extension should be doing the same."
Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said hearings could raise important questions about the pitfalls of an invasion and whether military action was the best option.
"It's important that complex factors be considered," Mr. Levin said. "The administration ought to be carrying a big stick but talking a little more softly and complexly."
Mr. Levin said European allies and senior military officers had been urging the administration to go slow. But he warned that hearings, if conducted in a confrontational manner, might push the administration into defending the hardest stance possible to avoid appearing weak.
Some Democrats also expressed doubts about raising questions about Iraq in an election year, fearful that their party would be attacked by Republicans as disloyal or weak on military issues.
"A lot of members worry that the election comes after the anniversary of 9/11, when lots of candidates will be wrapping themselves in the flag," said a Democratic official in the House. "The races will be a suppressant to public debate."
But despite such concerns, the House Democratic caucus is expected to pass a nonbinding resolution calling on the administration to report to Congress on its plans before undertaking any military action, said Erik Smith, a spokesman for the House minority leader, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
"He thinks we should plan on military action if all other efforts fail," Mr. Smith said of Mr. Gephardt. "However, he hasn't given the administration a blank check. He's a firm believer that any large-scale action should be presented to Congress before action is taken. There should be a national dialogue."
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his first hearing would include experts and scholars from outside the administration. He said he would also hold hearings in September if the White House agreed to send representatives.
Mr. Biden said he believed that the War Powers Resolution of 1973 would apply to any large-scale invasion of Iraq, but acknowledged that other Democrats disagree. The law requires a president to notify Congress in a timely fashion when troops are sent abroad and says those troops must be withdrawn within 90 days unless Congress explicitly approves their mission.
"But there is unanimity on one thing," Mr. Biden said. "If Saddam is still
around in five years, we've got a problem."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company