Beyond the water's edge War powers debate: Politics prevails as Congress divides along party lines.

November 01, 1995

ANYONE WHO STILL believes partisan politics stops at the water's edge should consult three roll calls inscribed in the Congressional Record.

The first occurred in mid-July 1973 when Congress was in the process of passing the War Powers Resolution over the veto of President Nixon. A reaction to Vietnam, the resolution was a legislative attempt to limit a president's authority to deploy U.S. forces overseas without congressional approval. No president since has considered the resolution constitutional. But it passed in the House, 244 to 170. Republicans voted in support of the president by a margin of 109 to 72. Democrats voted to restrict his power, 172 to 61.

Now fast-forward to January 1991. President Bush was preparing to unleash Operation Desert Storm against Iraq. The House voted to "authorize" this act of war, 250 to 183. Republicans voted to support the president, 164 to 3; Democrats voted nay, 179 to 86.

Which brings us to the Bosnia conflict and House passage this week of a resolution saying President Clinton is not to send troops there without the permission of Congress. This time there was a Democrat, not a Republican, in the White House. And so, party alignments reversed. In the turnabout, the Democrats have become the presidential party, supporting Mr. Clinton, 101 to 93. And the Republicans have become the congressional party, voting against Mr. Clinton,222 to 2.

There may be good reasons for Americans to be wary about having their troops involved in the Balkans. But on constitutional grounds, we believe Mr. Clinton has a duty to his country and his successors to assert an expansive view of presidential war powers.

The Constitution grants him wide executive authority and makes him commander-in-chief; in contrast, it gives the Congress the power to "declare" but not to "make" war. The point was debated by the Founding Fathers. Congress has the power of the purse, but Secretary of State Warren Christopher has indicated that a cutoff of funds would not deter this administration from its Bosnia policy.

Ambiguities in a government of divided powers will be debated as long as the republic stands. This is to the good. But we do find it illuminating if not surprising to watch the political parties shift positions on these important questions according to affiliation of the president. It gives the lie to the once-honored maxim that "politics stops at the water's edge."

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