WASHINGTON - As President Bush strives to make his case against Iraq, members of Congress are struggling with the politically delicate issue of how to respond once Bush formally asks them to authorize action.
Since the president pledged last week to seek a resolution from Congress before confronting Saddam Hussein, leaders have had to plan for a debate, and eventual vote, without knowing the terms, timing or possible consequences for the November elections.
The White House's intensifying rhetoric on Iraq - seen at its most coordinated Sunday, when Bush's deputies appeared on news programs - has catapulted military concerns to the top of Congress' agenda.
Democrats had hoped this fall to focus instead on voters' economic worries - an issue they believe would favor them in the elections.
"The Democrats feel we do better on issues related to the economy and domestic issues," said Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana. "From a political standpoint, I think it's better for the president" to discuss Iraq.
Until recently, corporate scandals and the shaky economy, along with pension reform, had preoccupied Congress. The administration's effort to sell Congress and the nation on the urgent need to act against Baghdad has changed all that.
Now, lawmakers are working classified intelligence briefings and hearings on Iraq into their schedules, while expecting that they might be asked to vote within weeks on whether to authorize action, possibly including an invasion, in Iraq.
Senators are set today to receive their second secret briefing with George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence, who will be joined by Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser. The two are also expected to brief House members.
The administration's focus on Iraq is sharpening just as this year's midterm election contests are heating up. The timing is throwing the volatile element of politics into an already complex international debate. Lawmakers in both parties are grumbling that their rivals are trying to gain election-year advantage on the issue of Iraq.
"I'm concerned that there are some who have expressed the concern about the politicization of this matter," the South Dakota Democrat said last week. "And I think we've got to be very careful about politicizing a war in Iraq or military efforts."
By design or otherwise, strategists say, the emphasis on Iraq plays to Republican strengths.
"Strictly from a political vantage point, score one for the president, because he will have tied up Congress in a debate," said John Zogby, an independent pollster. But "it's a very risky strategy. Right now, the public will isn't there" to invade Iraq.
Senior Republicans acknowledge privately that Bush would be putting their candidates, too, in a difficult position if he urged them to back a resolution on Iraq even while the public was divided over the prospect of war.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott suggested that Democrats are "setting up a series of hurdles" in the way of a resolution authorizing force.
"Some of their presidential candidates are already getting in a position of opposing it," said the Mississippi Republican.
Still, it is not clear which party would benefit from a campaign-season vote on war with Iraq. The public is still confused and conflicted, strategists say, about opening another front in the war on terror with uncertain human and economic costs.
"The focus may well affect the election, but I can't predict which way yet," said Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
That could well depend on whether Bush requests a vote - as he has suggested he will - before Congress leaves Washington in October, to allow lawmakers to campaign for re-election, or instead delays his request until after the elections.
Over the next four weeks, lawmakers would have to finish a heavy load of work - including 13 must-pass spending bills to fund the government for the next fiscal year - to adjourn by their Oct. 4 target date.
Few expect them to leave Washington by then. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that Congress will pass a stop-gap spending bill to fund the government at current levels and then leave in mid-October with plans to return after the elections for a "lame-duck" session.
Many lawmakers in both parties say that Congress simply has too little time to debate and vote on Iraq before leaving for the elections, unless there are urgent developments that require an immediate response.
Senior lawmakers say they are looking to Bush's speech Thursday at the United Nations for clues about what role the administration wants Congress to play and on what timetable. For now, many lawmakers in both parties say they are still far from ready for a vote.
"It's premature to even have an educated guess" about when Congress will act on such a resolution, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden said he expects Bush to ask for explicit international support, either through a restatement of the existing U.N. resolution requiring Iraq to submit to weapons inspections or through a new resolution.
"What that is and what response it gets will be the next tripwire," Biden said.
Daschle has indicated he is in no rush to schedule a vote on whether to authorize force against Iraq. "I'm more concerned about getting this done right than getting it done quickly," he said last week.
For the majority leader and other lawmakers on both sides, the degree of international support Bush can secure for U.S. action in Iraq will help determine what Congress does.
Though he would not rule out the possibility of supporting U.S. action without international support, Daschle said it would be "ideal" for Bush to have the backing of allies, as his father did in 1991 when the United States attacked Iraq.
Biden and Daschle met yesterday to discuss whether the Foreign Relations Committee, which held hearings on Iraq in July, might hold a second round. The Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees also plan to hold hearings, though no dates or witnesses are set.
Today, the House Armed Services Committee will begin this month's congressional hearings on Iraq with a session featuring two former officials of the U.N. Special Commission on Iraq: David A. Kay, a former weapons inspector, and Richard O. Spertzel, the former head of its Biology Section.
The panel is also scheduled to receive a classified briefing on Iraq earlier in the day.
The House International Relations Committee plans to start about 14 days of hearings on Iraq next week. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has agreed to appear, and the panel also expects to hear from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, other administration officials and outside experts.