WASHINGTON -- President Bush formally asked Congress yesterday to support his policies in the Persian Gulf, warning lawmakers that they would undermine the United States in its escalating war of nerves with Iraq if they failed to do so.
"Such action would send the clearest possible message to Saddam Hussein that he must withdraw without condition or delay from Kuwait," Mr. Bush said in a letter sent to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill., as Congress prepared for a formal debate on the gulf crisis. "Anything less would only encourage Iraqi intransigence."
It was the first time a president asked for congressional support of an offensive military action since 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson sought the Gulf of Tonkin resolution during the Vietnam War.
The letter was dispatched to Capitol Hill after Mr. Bush took to the international airwaves to reject efforts to lure Iraqi forces out of Kuwait with face-saving entreaties.
"I know that pressures are now building to provide Saddam some means of saving face, or to accept a withdrawal that is less than unconditional," he told 127 countries via the U.S. Information Agency. "The danger in this course should be clear to all."
As Congress girded for its own war of words over U.S. Persian Gulf policy, administration officials launched an intensive lobbying effort on Capitol Hill in hopes of broadening the tentative majority ready to support the president's strategy.
Lawmakers are scheduled to begin formal debate tomorrow, with the House slated to vote by Saturday on at least two gulf resolutions.
Yesterday, Republicans worked with administration officials and Democratic lawmakers backing the president's gulf policies in an effort to craft a resolution authorizing the use of force, one that would echo language approved last month by the United Nations Security Council.
Key Democrats, meanwhile, spent much of the afternoon sequestered in a conference room drafting a measure that would call for a reliance on sanctions and diplomacy to oust Mr. Hussein from his conquest.
"We're trying to take a simple issue -- whether you're for war or against it -- and make it extremely complex," conceded one aide, who said it would be a "miracle" if Congress rejected the Republican resolution in favor of the Democratic one.
The White House had hoped that Congress would not take any action, as there seemed little likelihood that Mr. Bush would get an overwhelming vote of confidence in advance for a military offensive. Indeed, as the administration frequently pointed out, Congress had only declared war five times, while U.S. forces had been committed to foreign conflicts more than 200 times.
Nevertheless, congressional leaders, wincing from criticism that the national legislature was seeking to hedge on questions of war and peace, forced the issue, deciding to move before the Jan. 15 deadline that the U.N. Security Council established for Iraq's voluntary capitulation.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis., said he would vote to authorize the use of force.
Mr. Aspin said that the price of a war against Iraq -- 500 to 1,000 American lives, he estimated -- was justified by the future peril posed by Iraq's continued effort to build a nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as the present threat to international economic stability posed by Iraq's dominance of Kuwait and its oil reserves.
In his international address, Mr. Bush continued to try to convince the world community that his demand that Iraq must unconditionally and completely withdraw by Jan. 15 has not changed despite the now-hectic pace of diplomacy.
"We are now entering a critical period of this crisis," he said in his televised U.S. Information Agency speech. He added that the Jan. 15 deadline is not "a date-certain for the onset of armed conflict -- it is a deadline for Saddam Hussein to choose . . . peace over war."
Nevertheless, Mr. Fitzwater said the United States still expected complete withdrawal by that deadline.