WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 1991 (UPI) - The specter of U.S. troops possibly going to war in the Persian Gulf dominated the opening of Congress as the Democratic leadership insisted President Bush cannot order military action without congressional authorization.
Following a meeting with Bush at the White House, Democratic leaders announced Thursday that because of the crisis, Congress would not go into recess as normally happens after the opening day of a new session.
''The recess has been canceled,'' Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell announced, saying members ''must be available on short notice'' for a possible debate on a resolution dealing with the Persian Gulf.
Bush said he would like to see Congress vote quickly on a narrowly drawn resolution expressing support for U.N. and U.S. efforts to force Iraq out of Kuwait, but the leaders told him that was unlikely.
In the Senate, particularly, amendments can freely be offered and Mitchell said ''it would be unwise to attempt to limit debate in any way on a subject of this magnitude. Further, I advised the president I think it doubtful that such a resolution would pass at this time, or if it did pass it would be, in my view, by a narrow margin.''
House Republican leader Robert Michel said it would be a mistake to allow amendments to such a measure ''because it could be a free-for-all, '' that might be misunderstood by Iraq's leaders.
Mitchell and House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., said any debate should wait for the return of Secretary of State James Baker, who may meet with the Iraqi foreign minister in Switzerland.
Less than an hour after the Senate convened at noon, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Brock Adams, D-Wash., tried to force a vote on a resolution asserting congressional authority over the start of any military action by U.S. troops.
Mitchell sought to block the move, but promised ''a full and vigorous debate'' after the results of Baker's mission are known.
The resolution would prohibit Bush from attacking Iraq without ''explicit authorization'' from Congress.
''These are not normal times,'' Harkin said. ''These are times when Americans are facing a war. I believe it is time for the Senate to debate the issues.''
But Mitchell warned that if one resolution is introduced ''we'll have a 100 resolutions ... there is no way to contain the debate'' and the discussions could undermine Baker's mission.
Foley, in opening remarks to the House, said Congress was beginning its work ''at a time of great importance, even perhaps critical importance to our nation in both domestic and foreign affairs.''
Earlier, he told reporters Congress will take up several major bills that did not pass last session, including the civil rights bill that Bush vetoed. As a sign of its high priority, the rights bill will be assigned bill No. 1, Foley said.
Other major items on the Democrats' agenda include education, health care, the nation's infrastructure, family leave, and campaign finance reform.
The 102nd Congress opened with the Democrats firmly in control of both chambers, with a 56-44 majority in the Senate and a House majority of 267-167, plus one independent member, socialist Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
New and re-elected House members were sworn in as a group, while senators were sworn in four at a time, taking the oath from Vice President Dan Quayle. The public galleries of both chambers were packed with friends and supporters, while many House members were accompanied on the floor by their young children dressed in their Sunday best.
The only exception from routine in the Senate was that former Vice President and Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., accompanied freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., down the middle aisle to the presiding officer's desk. Normally, Wellstone's Senate colleague, Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., would have escorted Wellstone.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., the oldest member of the Senate at 88, took oath for eighth time.