Congress struggles to take stand on U.S. forces in gulf

September 25, 1990|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In Saudi Arabia, U.S. forces are digging in for what is almost certain to be a long stay. In Washington, Congress is entangling itself in a debate over what to do about it.

"We are, after all, equal partners with the president in the foreign policy-making process," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.

But that is more easily said than demonstrated. As President Bush committed tens of thousands of troops to the Middle East, lawmakers rallied around the president and his goal of evicting Iraqi troops from oil-saturated Kuwait. But they have also been groping for a way to assert control over the course of events in the Persian Gulf at a time when public sentiment appears solidly behind the course chosen by the president.

"There's got to be a way for us to express solidarity without acquiescence," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "We're not potted palms."

Thus the dilemma before lawmakers, reluctant to break solidarity with the president and anxious to avoid handing him a blank check for his actions in the Middle East.

Since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, members of Congress have huddled in countless closed-door conversations without reaching any sort of agreement on what ought to be done.

"It is the subject of active and continuing debate," said Representative Dante B. Fascell, D-Fla., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, barely concealing a wry grin. "We keep talking and talking and talking, and if there's a way to talk again, we do that, too."

Congress is expected to assert itself a bit in the next week or two and adopt a resolution expressing support for Mr. Bush's objectives in the Middle East. But even this exercise is fraught with potential pitfalls.

Key members of the House and Senate are working on the language of the resolution that lawmakers will be asked to support. Their efforts, however, have been complicated by the issue of whether the resolution ought to call on the president to use any means, military or diplomatic, to pry Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

In the view of many lawmakers, a bill that sanctions any strategy of the president's choosing is perilously reminiscent of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, a vaguely worded congressional expression of assent that was interpreted to have given President Lyndon B. Johnson carte blanche in Vietnam.

The question, they say, then becomes whether the resolution should urge the president to seek a diplomatic resolution to the crisis first, or whether such a directive would be interpreted both at home and overseas as an effort by Congress to bind the president's hands.

"We're haunted by the Tonkin resolution," said one Democratic senator. "Please recall that passed almost unanimously, and the consequences were perceived to be disastrous."

Many lawmakers are also afraid of leaving the hatch open for blame to fall on their heads, should things in the Middle East go tragically awry. "There's a lot of that," conceded Representative Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., a member of the Foreign Affairs


That fear, in turn, has muted calls for implementing the War Powers Act, a 1973 statute requiring the withdrawal of U.S. forces no more than 90 days after the president commits them to a hostile situation unless Congress votes to let them stay there.

The law was adopted over President Richard M. Nixon's veto by a Congress angry with the course of events in Vietnam. Despite volumes of rhetoric, the law has been effectively invoked only once -- in 1983, during the crisis in Lebanon, after intensive negotiations between the White House and Capitol Hill.

"The War Powers Act is an invitation to the president to deal with the Congress, and that's what this administration is doing in an exemplary fashion," said Mr. Fascell, one of the act's original sponsors.

An invitation, however, does not satisfy some of the law's supporters, who contend that the law could help Mr. Bush strengthen the political alliance supporting his policy.

"He's missed an opportunity: If he goes to War Powers, everyone is on board and, yes, he shares credit, but -- if necessary -- he shares blame as well," said Mr. Torricelli. "In my view, the act has already been triggered."

Mr. Torricelli appears to be in the minority, however. Mr. Fascell said the impending resolution would be offered as "part of Congress' expression under War Powers," a contrivance that leaves some of the War Powers Act's skeptical opponents snickering derisively.

"There will always be a way to fudge this," said Sen. Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-Kan. "Ultimately, Congress has the power of the purse, and if we aren't happy with something the president is doing, we know how to stop him."

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