WASHINGTON -- By a margin of more than 2-to-1, members of Congress say they -- and not President Bush -- have the authority to approve a first-strike military offensive in the Persian Gulf, according to a Knight-Ridder survey of Congress.
The survey of 314 of 435 representatives and 71 of 100 senators also shows that Congress is sharply divided along party lines.
This is the first comprehensive poll of Congress to determine whether members believe Mr. Bush should have sole authority to lead the nation into an offensive war. The congressional rank-and-file have largely stood on the sidelines as an uneasy understanding developed between Mr. Bush and congressional leaders that the president would keep them informed privately.
The partisan division is reminiscent of the last days of the Vietnam War rather than the first days, when Congress voted overwhelmingly to give President Lyndon B. Johnson authority to commit combat troops in Southeast Asia.
The Knight-Ridder survey, conducted over three days, showed:
* Of 192 Democrats who expressed an opinion, 177 -- 92 percent -- said Congress must approve in advance a U.S. military offensive against Iraqi forces.
* In Republican ranks, 81 of the 113 -- or 71 percent -- who expressed a view said Mr. Bush was free to launch an offensive withoutprior congressional approval.
* Asked whether they would vote to authorize Mr. Bush to launch an attack after Jan. 15 if he came to Congress, only 36 Democrats said they would, while 123 said they would not.
* By 92-6, Republicans took the opposite tack, saying they would support such a resolution.
"If Jan. 15 passes without any military action, Saddam Hussein and every other petty tyrant in the world will know the United States is not to be taken very seriously," said arch-conservative Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
"It would be very hard for me to have Congress show less resolve than the U.N. Security Council," added Iowa Representative Jim Leach, a more moderate Republican.
In November, the United Nations approved a U.S.-sponsored resolution giving Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein until Jan. 15 to withdraw from Kuwait, which he invaded Aug. 2.
The U.N. vote raised hackles -- mainly at first among Democratic liberals -- among members of Congress who pointed out that Mr. Bush hadn't sought their approval. In reply, the White House insisted that 200 years of precedent and the War Powers Act passed by Congress in 1973 provided Mr. Bush with all the authority he needed to engage the Iraqi armed forces in combat.
But since Nov. 8, when Mr. Bush announced he would double the number of U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia and when an allied military offensive became increasingly possible, congressional discontent has been growing.
Last week, as new members were sworn in, congressional Democrats made it clear they intended to debate the crisis openly.