WASHINGTON - President Bush pledged yesterday to seek Congress' approval for any military action against Iraq. White House officials asserted, though, that if lawmakers denied Bush's request, he would still have authority to order an invasion.
While there are no signs that a confrontation with Iraq is imminent - or that it would occur before the new year - administration officials and lawmakers spoke yesterday with urgency and signaled that they consider war a realistic possibility.
Congressional leaders from both parties who met with the president said that a vote on whether to grant Bush the open-ended authority he wants could come sometime this fall.
Bush, speaking expansively about Iraq for the first time in weeks, said that yesterday marked the start of an aggressive White House effort to convince Congress, the American public and skeptical U.S. allies that Saddam Hussein's regime poses a danger to the world.
Next Thursday, at the United Nations, Bush is expected to publicly lay out his case against Hussein. The administration argues that Baghdad is building up chemical and biological weapons, that it will soon threaten the world with nuclear arms and that its weapons of mass destruction could land in the hands of terrorists.
"Saddam Hussein is a serious threat," Bush said after his meeting with lawmakers. "Today, the process starts about how to have an open dialogue with the elected officials and, therefore, the American people about our future and how best to deal with it."
He added: "Doing nothing about that serious threat is not an option for the United States."
Among the 18 lawmakers who met with Bush were some high-ranking Democrats who stressed that there were still diplomatic options and said Bush provided no fresh evidence to justify invading Iraq any time soon.
"I know of no information, and I know of no senator who has information, with regard to Iraq that would change the current circumstances," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said after the meeting with Bush but before a classified briefing on Iraq with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said that without new information, "Congress will not be able to vote intelligently on the subject of using force in Iraq. Provide us with the information so that we can make that intelligent judgment."
In the meeting, congressional leaders said, Bush acknowledged some varying opinion within his administration on responding to Iraq but said the White House argument would be spelled out soon.
Some lawmakers are already convinced. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip, said that war "is the only option."
The president vowed to dispatch advisers to make his case for removing Hussein during coming congressional hearings.
Some congressional leaders said they could envision a vote on an Iraq resolution before lawmakers adjourn to campaign for the November elections. But Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority whip in the Democratic-led Senate, said he did not think there was time for a resolution before the elections.
The president said he would consult this weekend at Camp David with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of the few world leaders who have voiced support for toppling Hussein. The president is to meet Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, in a visit to Michigan, as part of an effort to build international support for action against Iraq.
"It's important for the world to deal with this man," Bush said. "The world must understand that its credibility is at stake."
International leaders and some members of Congress have urged Bush to refrain from attacking Iraq - at least for now - and to instead work through the United Nations to pressure Hussein to allow United Nations weapons inspectors back into his country. The inspectors would seek to verify that Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.
Administration officials have said they might consider the return of inspectors as a first step and are considering supporting a U.N. resolution to set a firm deadline for Iraq to let the inspectors back unconditionally. The resolution would likely imply the threat of military action - though, to ensure broader international support, it would not explicitly threaten any invasion.
The president said yesterday that "the issue is not inspectors; the issue is disarmament."
"For 11 long years," Bush said, "Saddam Hussein has side-stepped, crawfished, wheedled out of any agreement he had made not to harbor, not to develop weapons of mass destruction, agreements he's made to treat the people within his country with respect. And so I'm going to call upon the world to recognize that he is stiffing the world."
Bush would likely receive broad support from lawmakers and U.S. allies for diplomatic efforts to pressure Hussein. But he faces an uphill battle in securing backing - at home or abroad - for an attack on Iraq, especially if U.S. allies refuse to take part.
In contrast to his father, who as president enjoyed enormous international support for attacking Iraq after it occupied Kuwait in 1991, the younger Bush is faced with allies who generally oppose military action now.
The one exception is Blair, who has expressed solidarity with Bush despite widespread opposition in Britain to an invasion of Iraq.
This week, Blair announced that he would soon release new information about the threat posed by Hussein's regime. He also said that the United States "should not have to face this issue alone."
Yesterday, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany insisted that Blair "will not speak for Europe alone on this issue or on others" and reiterated that "Germany will not take part in an intervention in Iraq."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who is attending an international conference in South Africa, spoke to several world leaders there yesterday. He said they all agreed that Hussein must be dealt with, but Powell did not appear to persuade any of them to back the idea of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq.
Some leaders said they were encouraged that Bush appeared more open than before to working with the United Nations.
"Now this is starting to, I think, end up in a situation when it probably can be politically manageable," Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said.
While polls show that a slim majority of Americans support invading Iraq, most say they would back the effort if other countries took part.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said her constituents have asked, "What is the case for putting our young people in harm's way?"
Pelosi added: "I have not seen evidence that would suggest that the threat is imminent."
White House officials have been vague when asked whether Bush or his advisers planned to present new information to Congress or the public about Hussein's weapons stockpile.
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, declined to say definitively yesterday whether new information would be forthcoming. He instead referred to a 1998 vote in which Congress approved a resolution supporting efforts to oust Hussein's regime.
"From Congress' point of view, as a result of the vote they, themselves, took in 1998, they had all the evidence they needed then that Saddam Hussein needed to go," Fleischer said.
Lawmakers said that once Bush asked for a resolution, they would likely draft a document modeled after the resolution that gave Bush's father the authority to attack Iraq in 1991.
Those were, however, different circumstances. Lawmakers back then were expressing support for a U.N. resolution calling for action against Iraq if it refused to end its occupation of Kuwait, a sovereign nation.
The congressional resolution called on the president, before unleashing an invasion, to show that "all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means" have been tried unsuccessfully.
By the time the resolution passed, the elder Bush had been amassing forces in the Persian Gulf. He launched the attack four days after Congress voted.
Sun staff writer Mark Matthews and the Associated Press contributed to this article.