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WASHINGTON INSIGHT

By The Times Washington staff

WIDENING GULF? Congressional criticism of the U.S. venture in the Persian Gulf is expected to intensify this week, as House members return for organizational meetings in advance of the 102nd Congress.

Lawmakers generally accept the admonition of Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) that they take no firm action pending the outcome of Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s possible trip to Baghdad. Still, many Democrats plan to speak for a go-slow approach rather than the threat of force that the Bush Administration has been emphasizing.

“There are very few hawks out there,” one congressional aide said.

Even so, most of the lawmakers would like to avoid an up-or-down vote on declaring war, which would place fence-sitters in opposition to the commander-in-chief. Hyde draws sympathetic nods from members of both parties when he says that any such action should be postponed until the new Congress convenes. “It’s too important to have a lame-duck group vote on it,” he said.

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NERVOUS DEFENSE? Pentagon strategists are bracing for confrontation with members of Congress this week during Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on Operation Desert Shield.

Defense Department officials fear that a tough examination from committee members will bolster Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s conviction that Congress and the Administration are divided on whether the United States should attack after Jan. 15, as the latest United Nations resolution would allow.

The senators are preparing pointed questions about allied forces’ participation in any fighting, problems with command-and-control structures, casualty predictions and whether minorities, which are heavily represented in infantry and armor units, would bear a disproportionate share of combat deaths and injuries.

LABELING THE SLUMP: Top Administration officials disagree as to how soon the President should concede that the economy is in a recession.

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With private economists almost unanimously acknowledging a serious slump, some of Bush’s advisers say the White House may end up looking silly if the Administration doesn’t join the consensus. But the President’s political strategists insist that he would be taking a greater risk to concede defeat too early--and then see the economists proven wrong.

One potential solution: wait until the privately financed National Bureau of Economic Research--the official arbiter of recessions--declares one on its own.

Meanwhile, Bush has tried to have it both ways, referring to “the slowdown or the recession or whatever one would call exactly what we’re in now.”

CAREFUL BILL: William J. Bennett, the former drug czar, is keeping an uncharacteristically low profile in his new assignment as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

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The usually outspoken academic has refused to answer questions on how he will handle the job. Bennett’s silence may be protective. Although his appointment doesn’t require Senate confirmation, it does take approval of the Republican National Committee, some of whose members may be leery about having too controversial a party leader.


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