President Bush Friday warned Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to "get moving" on an exchange of high-level meetings on the gulf crisis but stopped short of issuing an ultimatum for him to talk or fight.

Bush expressed frustration at Saddam's refusal to see Secretary of State James Baker before Jan. 12, only three days before a U.N. deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait or face possible military action by a U.S.-led force."We've offered 15 days, and he ought to get moving and do something reasonable if he really wants to move for peace," Bush told reporters. He spoke on the White House lawn before departing by helicopter to his Camp David retreat for the weekend.

Asked if he would refuse to have Baker meet Saddam in Baghdad after Jan. 3, the last date the United States has proposed, the president replied:

"I don't want to draw deadlines in the sand here, but there would have to be some compelling reason for me to change it because I don't want to move this up against the United Nations dead-line." Bush also said he was considering asking the new Congress that convenes Jan. 3 to authorize offensive action in the gulf as demanded by some Democrats.

"We're talking about that," he said, adding that further expressions of U.S. resolve "would send a very strong, clear signal to the world."

The final organized planeload of U.S. hostages, including Ambassador Nathaniel Howell and the last U.S. Embassy officials from Kuwait, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington Friday and were welcomed by Baker.

"Make no mistake about it, the only industry in Kuwait today is war and military occupation," Howell said during a ceremony at Andrews. I left (the Iraqis) building bunkers along the seacoast and around our embassy.

"I saw no indication that they plan to leave," he said.

Baker welcomed the group and saluted them for being "victorious over an uncivilized and brutal ordeal."

But he added, "While your ordeal has ended, that of the Kuwaiti people continues. As you were freed, now too we must see Kuwait freed of Iraqi occupation."

The United States says nearly 1 million Iraqi and U.S.-allied troops are now massed - about evenly divided - in and near occupied Kuwait.

In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played down speculation that the United States would be forced into an early war because of the size of the U.S. military force in the gulf.

"I really don't think it is use it or lose it," Powell said.

He said tough choices would have to be made to keep the forces there for an extended time but "we can keep the force deployed as long as the president wants it deployed."

Cheney said the prospect of intense summer heat next year would not be a deciding factor in whether to launch an attack.