WASHINGTON - As top congressional and White House officials negotiate the wording of a war resolution on Iraq, some Democrats are preparing to challenge President Bush with their own narrower measure.
With a congressional vote likely by next week, the top four leaders in Congress are urging their rank-and-file members to give bipartisan talks time to yield a compromise before proposing alternatives to the resolution Bush has offered.
But a rising number of Democrats say that their side is giving in too easily, because some in the party fear the political consequences of defying Bush on a national security issue.
Yesterday, Bush ratcheted up the pressure on Congress to send him a resolution authorizing the use of force.
"Congress must act now to pass a resolution which will hold Saddam Hussein to account for a decade of defiance," he said after a Cabinet meeting.
So far, Congress' top two Democrats, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, seem to be backing the president while seeking to limit the authority he would have. They say Congress is all but certain to give Bush some kind of authorization to attack Iraq.
"By and large, Republicans and Democrats are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt in this circumstance to the administration," Daschle said.
But several Democrats said they are ready to challenge the authorization request. Bush wants congressional approval to use any means he deems appropriate to attack Iraq, unilaterally if necessary.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said that if Bush continues to push for such broad authority, some Democrats would propose an alternative.
Levin has advocated a congressional resolution urging the United Nations to pass a resolution requiring Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors and to disarm. Levin would authorize member nations to use force if Hussein refuses to comply, and the president could attack Iraq to enforce such a U.N. resolution.
Some Democrats suggest that fears of being portrayed as weak on national defense are preventing party members from expressing concerns that Bush's proposal is too broad and that it ignores the need to build an international coalition against Iraq.
"When you combine in our caucus the hawks, the people in close races and all the people who hope someday to be president, that's a lot of Democrats lining up behind the president," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Florida Democrat, introduced yesterday the first alternative resolution. It would allow the president to use military force against Iraq only if he meets eight conditions, including offering pledges that the United States faces an "imminent threat" from Iraq; has exhausted diplomatic and peaceful means to secure Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions; and has sought a new U.N. measure condemning Iraq's defiance of past resolutions.
The White House has signaled a willingness to consider changing one phrase in the Bush proposal that has alarmed Democrats who say it could be used to attack other nations - a clause authorizing the use of force "to restore international peace and security in the region."
House Democrats are also expressing concerns about the cost of an invasion, particularly one carried out by the United States on its own. They have estimated the cost of an operation in Iraq at $48 billion to $93 billion, not including subsequent costs such as peacekeeping and humanitarian aid.
The White House budget director, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., served notice yesterday that funding a war on Iraq would require reductions in spending for scores of federal programs. Daniels said Congress "will have at least some rough idea by the time it votes" on a resolution how much a war would cost.
"But with the security of the nation, cost is a consequence as opposed to a decisive factor," Daniels said.
The White House continued to press its case last night, inviting about two dozen House members from both parties to meet with CIA Director George J. Tenet and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who says he is undecided, said officials stressed that Bush wants a congressional resolution passed so he can turn to the United Nations and show that his Iraq policy has the support of the American people.
Cummings said he might prefer it the other way around - knowing that Bush has other nations involved before voting to give him broad powers.