WASHINGTON – The Bush administration will go before Congress late this month to seek approval for the necessary actions against Iraq, Fox News has learned.
Sources told Fox News that two rough dates have been set for hearings by the House International Relations Committee -- one for closed-door, classified hearings with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Sept. 16, and another a week later on Sept. 23 for open hearings with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
President Bush pledged Wednesday to seek congressional approval before taking action against Saddam Hussein, while House and Senate lawmakers said the president laid out plans for a "regime change" during a morning meeting at the White House.
"The president made a strong argument for the regime change," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "I believe both the Congress and the American people will support it."
A leading Democrat saw it a bit differently.
"I think everyone acknowledged this is a good start, but I don't think anyone walked out of there ready to invade," said Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Bush told reporters that the meeting opened "dialogue" between the White House and Congress, as well as between Washington and the American people, about dealing with what he termed the "very serious threat" of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
"We spent most of our time talking about the serious threat to the United States, the serious threat to the world, and that's Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "Doing nothing about that serious threat is not an option for the United States."
Republican Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma told Fox News that Bush, in reply to a question, said he expected Congress to act on some sort of resolution regarding Iraq before the November midterm elections.
This information jibes with remarks made by Vice President Dick Cheney Tuesday that a resolution could be placed before Congress by mid-October.
The administration also plans to reach out to U.S. allies for support on Iraq, including a speech to the United Nations Sept. 12 and a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Camp David this weekend.
Administration officials said Bush will tell the U.N. General Assembly that Saddam has flouted U.N. weapons-curbing resolutions put in place at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and that the world body is thus obligated to help the U.S. punish Iraq.
Bush intends to emphasize that the relevance of the U.N. itself is at stake, according to an official familiar with early drafts of the speech.
Other unnamed White House officials told the Associated Press that the administration is considering sponsoring a U.N. Security Council resolution that would set a deadline for Iraq to re-open its weapons sites to unfettered inspection, and to provide for punitive action upon refusal.
To get the resolution past a Chinese or Russian veto, the resolution likely would not spell out the threat, but it would be obvious to Saddam, the officials said.
Some two dozen ideas are circulating within the administration, and among them is the notion of "coercive inspections" -- forcing Iraq to open its suspect sites to inspectors by deploying thousands of American or multinational troops in or near Iraq who would launch an attack if inspectors were denied, officials said.
White House officials fell Saddam is unlikely to comply with either a U.S. or U.N. ultimatum. Even if wide-open inspections do take place, the official U.S. policy will still call for a "regime change."
Senior Bush advisers say the president is setting the stage for a confrontation with Saddam, knowing the outcome will likely lead to military action unless the Iraqi leader is deposed by other means.
"At the appropriate time, the administration will go to the Congress and seek approval for the necessary [steps] to deal with the threat," Bush said. That approval is set to be included in the expected resolution, but not until after thorough hearings have been held on Capitol Hill and world leaders have been notified of the president's arguments and intentions.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., insisted that the final solution to the Iraq dilemma had yet to be determined.
"I don't think there is one way to deal with this at this point," said Gephardt. "There's a lot to be done here. This is the building of a strategy with the American people, the Congress and the rest of the world in dealing with what is a threat."
Daschle said congressional leaders met with Rumsfeld later Wednesday afternoon in a classified setting to "talk more specifically about options and strategies at that time."
"But I would say that it would not be my assumption that the military course is the only action available to him today," he added.
In an opinion piece Thursday in The Washington Post, former President Carter declared that "a unilateral war with Iraq is not the answer." He said there is an urgent need for United Nations action to force unrestricted inspections in Iraq.
"But perhaps deliberately so, this has become less likely as we alienate our necessary allies," wrote Carter. "Apparently disagreeing with the president and secretary of state, in fact, the vice president has now discounted the goal as a desirable option."
Carter also criticized the U.S. government for "abandoning any sponsorship of substantive negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis."
In Berlin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Germany is firmly opposed to military action and rebuffed calls by Britain for European nations to help apply pressure to Iraq.
"Friendship cannot mean that you do what the friend wants even if you have another opinion," Schroeder said. "Anything else would not be friendship, but submission -- and I would consider that wrong."
When Bush was asked if he was giving Congress veto authority, he was confident he could work with lawmakers on the issue.
"For eleven long years, Saddam Hussein has side-stepped, craw-fished, wheedled out of any agreements he had made not to develop weapons of mass destruction," the president said. "So I'm going to call upon the world to recognize that he is stifling the world. And I will lay out and I will talk about ways to make sure he follows up on his agreements."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reminded reporters Wednesday that many of the lawmakers who met with Bush supported the 1998 law making "regime change" in Iraq official U.S. policy.
"Unless members have now changed their minds, the Congress agreed that regime change ... should be America's policy," Fleischer said before the morning meeting.
In Johannesburg, South Africa, Powell ran into concerns from other world leaders about a possible U.S. go-it-alone policy.
"It is vitally important to pursue the U.N. track," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after his meeting with Powell on the sidelines of the international environmental and economic summit.
Back in Washington, Rumsfeld told reporters Tuesday that the administration had secret information supporting its claims that Saddam is close to developing nuclear weapons and must be overthrown.
Rumsfeld said it is already publicly known that Iraq wants to acquire nuclear weapons, that nuclear technologies have spread in recent years and that Iraq has ways of obtaining such materials.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair said his government hoped to publish in the next few weeks a dossier of evidence on Saddam's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Last October, three days before the United States began bombing terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Blair released to his Parliament a similar dossier on Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden.
An ABC News public-opinion poll showed that 56 percent of those surveyed favor military action against Iraq, down from 69 percent early in August. Thirty-nine percent now support military action against Iraq even if U.S. allies are opposed, down from 54 percent early last month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.