Key lawmakers, backed by party leaders, are drafting legislation that would effectively revoke the broad authority granted to the president in the days Saddam Hussein was in power, and leave U.S. troops with a limited mission as they prepare to withdraw.
Officials said Thursday the precise wording of the measure remains unsettled. One version would restrict American troops in Iraq to fighting al Qaeda, training Iraqi army and police forces, maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity and otherwise proceeding with the withdrawal of combat forces.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., intends to present the proposal to fellow Democrats next week, and he is expected to try to add the measure to anti-terrorism legislation scheduled to be debated later this month. Officials who described the strategy spoke only on condition of anonymity, noting that rank-and-file senators had not yet been briefed on the details.
Republicans recently thwarted two Democratic attempts to pass a nonbinding measure through the Senate that was critical of Mr. Bush's decision to deploy an additional 21,500 combat troops.
After failing on his second attempt last Saturday, Reid said he would turn his attention to passing binding legislation.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, declined to discuss the deliberations, saying only, "No final decisions have been made on how to proceed."
At the White House, the talk of revoking the authorization to use military force is viewed as "hypothetical," reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. Spokesman Tony Fratto offered no expressions of White House concern about such a measure.
"I'm not going to talk about hypothetical legislation," Fratto said Friday. "Obviously, the president intends, and his focus is on, having the resources and flexibility to carry out our operations on the ground. We don't know where they're going. The Democrats seem to be clearly divided on what they're going to do."
Any attempt to limit the president's powers as commander in chief would likely face strong opposition from Republican allies of the administration in the Senate. Additionally, unlike earlier, nonbinding measures, the legislation now under consideration could also face a veto threat.
Still, it marks a quickening of the challenge Democrats are mounting to Mr. Bush's war policies following midterm elections in which war-weary voters swept Republicans from power in both the House and Senate.
The emerging Senate plan differs markedly from an approach favored by critics of the war in the House, where a nonbinding measure passed last week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she expects the next challenge to Mr. Bush's war policies to come in the form of legislation requiring the Pentagon to adhere to strict training and readiness standards in the case of troops ticketed for the war zone.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the leading advocate of that approach, has said it would effectively deny Mr. Bush the ability to proceed with the troop buildup that has been partially implemented since he announced it in January.
Some Senate Democrats have been privately critical of that approach, saying it would have virtually no chance of passing and could easily backfire politically in the face of Republican arguments that it would deny reinforcements to troops already in the war zone.
Several Senate Democrats have called in recent days for revoking the original authorization that Mr. Bush sought and won from Congress in the months before the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
That measure authorized the president to use the armed forces "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate ... to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and to enforce relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions.
At the time the world body had passed resolutions regarding Iraq's presumed effort to develop weapons of mass destruction.
In a speech last week, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "I am working on legislation to repeal that authorization and replace it with a much narrower mission statement for our troops in Iraq."
Biden added that Congress should make clear what the mission of U.S. troops is: to responsibly draw down, while continuing to combat terrorists, train Iraqis and respond to emergencies.
Along with Biden, officials said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and a small group of key Democrats were involved in the effort to draft legislation. Leadership aides are also playing a role.
It was not clear whether the measure would explicitly state that the 2002 authorization for the use of military force was being revoked. One proposal that had been circulated would declare that Mr. Bush was not authorized to involve U.S. armed forces in an Iraqi civil war, but it appeared that prohibition had been dropped as part of the discussions.
At the same time, several officials noted that any explicit authority for U.S. troops to confront al Qaeda would effectively bless Mr. Bush's decision to dispatch about 3,500 additional troops to the volatile Anbar Province in the western part of Iraq.
Under the president's recent announcement, the balance of the 21,500 additional troops would go to Baghdad, where the administration hopes they can help quell sectarian violence.