WASHINGTON - President Bush narrowed his request to Congress yesterday for authorization to launch a unilateral attack against Iraq, offering to impose some limits on a broad resolution he proposed last week.
The new language was an effort to forge a quick agreement on a war resolution that Congress will begin debating next week and will probably approve within the next two weeks.
But it fell short of what many Democrats were looking for. The Bush proposal would give him the authority to invade Iraq without requiring him first to use all possible diplomatic and peaceful means to avoid war.
"There are a number of issues that remain ones that are unresolved, as far as we're concerned," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said after he and his fellow Democrats had reviewed the draft.
Tempers were still raw on Capitol Hill from Daschle's angry speech Wednesday in which he accused Bush and his administration of politicizing the debates on Iraq and the proposed Homeland Security Department by questioning Democrats' commitment to national security.
Bush appeared to go out of his way yesterday, in public and in private, to calm tempers.
"The security of our country is the commitment of both political parties," he said after a meeting with House Republicans and Democrats, most of whom support giving Bush broad authority to act against Saddam Hussein. Further debate, Bush vowed, "will be conducted with all civility" and "in a manner that will make Americans proud."
In private, aides to key Democrats were blunt in their assessments of the new White House proposal. They said many Democrats do not regard it as a serious effort to give the United Nations and its weapons inspectors time to work before resorting to an invasion and thus would not garner broad support in Congress.
Republicans, though, all but declared the proposal their final offer to Democrats, suggesting that they were not open to modifications.
"There would be no sentiment for any further changes at this point," Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, said after members of his party had looked over the modified Bush proposal.
Hussein, al-Qaida ties
To bolster their case for removing Hussein and add urgency to their call for a congressional resolution, administration officials have begun stressing what they say are ties between al-Qaida and Hussein.
Bush said yesterday that Hussein's regime "has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist organizations." On Wednesday he said, "The danger is that al-Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that there is "very reliable reporting of senior level contacts going back a decade" between Iraq and al-Qaida "and of possible chemical and biological agent training."
The United States, Rumsfeld said, has evidence that senior al-Qaida operatives - though not Osama bin Laden - have been in Baghdad "in recent periods."
Administration officials also pressed their case for urgency at the United Nations. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Congress that the United States has reached an agreement with Britain on language for a U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq comply with previous resolutions it has ignored or face consequences.
Democrats in the House and Senate - many of whom are deeply opposed to unilateral action against Hussein - are struggling to blend their disparate views on Iraq into one alternative resolution that would give their party a chance to vote yes for use of force.
But the administration's more limited proposal gave Republicans grounds to suggest that Democrats were being unreasonable in holding out.
"I think we have reached a point where there is good language, and we should go forward with it," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican.
Democrats, Lott complained, have had a week to help shape the resolution, and after the changes the White House offered, "any further erosion, I think, is going to be a problem."
The new proposal sets the stage for a congressional debate next week on U.S. policy in Iraq, and a vote on a war resolution before lawmakers' planned departure Oct. 11.
Action limited to Iraq
Bush's latest draft makes several changes to the original measure that have been sought by lawmakers in both parties. The proposal would no longer give Bush sweeping power "to use all means that he determines to be appropriate, including force," against Iraq.
It limits the authorization to "the threat posed by Iraq," dropping a more open-ended clause in the original resolution that said Bush could use the power to "restore international peace and security in the region." And instead of "all means," the new resolution would specify that the president was authorized to use only the U.S. armed forces.
It would also invoke the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires the president to consult with Congress before involving the United States in hostilities, and periodically while such conflicts are under way.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has floated a resolution that would let Bush use "all necessary and appropriate" force to defend the United States from the threat of Iraq. It would also invoke the War Powers Act and require the president to report to Congress every 60 days.
As a war vote on Capitol Hill draws closer, and especially after Wednesday's partisan acrimony, Democrats are increasingly voicing concerns about Bush's Iraq policy. "I would not support the resolution as it was presented," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said last night in a statement. "I would prefer a more multilateral approach."
Like many in her party, Mikulski says the administration has not made it clear enough what an invasion of Iraq - and its aftermath - might look like.
"I don't know whether our military men and women will be greeted with flags or landmines," she said.
Some Democrats who want to impose further conditions on Bush's authority to wage war against Iraq worry that splits within their party are hurting their efforts to forge a strong Democratic resolution.
Yesterday's meeting between Bush, Republicans and some Democratic hawks in the House alarmed some of those Democrats and convinced them that a debate on Iraq would be divisive.
"We've made our case to the United Nations; it seems to me we ought to give the U.N. a chance to act," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat.
Bush stressed during the White House meeting yesterday, lawmakers present said, that force in Iraq would be a final option after he made a serious effort at diplomacy.
"He made clear war is a last resort," said Rep. Chet Edwards, a Texas Democrat, adding that the meeting was "beginning the process of putting behind us the rancor of" Wednesday.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a New York Democrat, said Bush was clearly trying to "give Democrats an olive branch" after the accusations from Daschle.
"He was extremely conciliatory," Engel said. "I would not say it was an apology, but the president clearly understands that everyone is damaged if this becomes a political fight, and he went out of his way to heal those wounds."