Clinton urges Congress to show united front against Yugoslavia

President, top lawmakers of both parties meet on terms for solidarity

War In Yugoslavia

April 13, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler | Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Congress straggled back from its Easter recess, President Clinton scrambled yesterday to maintain a united front behind the air war over Yugoslavia, urging congressional leaders to muffle their criticism until the allies have achieved their objectives against Serbian forces.

Doing their best to show solidarity with the White House, Republican and Democratic leaders emerged from a meeting with Clinton last night, praising the bravery of U.S. troops and quelling calls for a speedy vote on whether ground forces should be added.

"It's too soon to have that debate," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. But he said a congressional debate on the proper U.S. role in the war against the Yugoslav regime of Slobodan Milosevic could begin in the House as early as next week.

Clinton promised the congressional leaders that he would send them a formal request by the end of this week for emergency spending to cover the cost of the Kosovo mission, which is likely to be the focus for Congress' review of the military campaign.

The outcome of a congressional vote on whether the United States should become more deeply involved in the war was described yesterday as much in doubt.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott rejected a proposal from fellow Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that Lott sponsor a bipartisan measure authorizing Clinton to use "any means necessary" to defeat the Serbian forces.

It is not yet clear, Lott said, that Americans would support such a proposal.

After meeting with voters in four states over the two-week Easter break, Lott said he would describe their mood as "quizzical," unsure why U.S. forces were involved in a military campaign and what the objective was.

There were also fresh signs of concern among other senior Republicans who, like Lott, have never been convinced that the United States has a strategic interest in the Balkans conflict.

"We are very concerned about a political leadership that admits it didn't calculate for the worst-case scenario, that may have sparked a major humanitarian crisis and has galvanized Serb public opinion behind Milosevic," a senior Senate Republican leadership aide said.

"There has to be an honest discussion about the entire range of options out there."

White House officials said they would do all they could to make Congress a partner in NATO's campaign in Yugoslavia, and to try to keep such verbal barrages to a minimum. Yesterday, Clinton dashed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana to express his own resolve on the Kosovo crisis again.

Milosevic "can end it tomorrow," Clinton said of the bombing. "But until he does, he should be under no illusions that we will end it from weariness. We are determined to continue on this mission, and we will prevail."

Then he quickly returned to the White House to meet with the four top Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate. A much larger meeting with members of Congress is scheduled for this morning.

Top administration officials -- including Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Brian Atwood, who heads the administration's humanitarian relief efforts in the Balkans -- will also hold private briefings on Capitol Hill today.

"We don't want to be in a position where Congress thinks we're taking them for granted," a White House official said.

Mindful of Republican support for U.S. troops, if not his policies, the president announced an executive order making combat pay for soldiers involved in Operation Allied Force tax-free. Military personnel as well as civilians involved in the conflict -- including relief workers and journalists -- would also get an extension on their tax filing deadlines.

The House Ways and Means Committee has unveiled a similar proposal.

For now, Clinton's charm offensive with Congress may be working, largely because the Republicans are themselves deeply split.

The Republican leaders' decision to delay a vote on the Kosovo mission has as much to do with their efforts to mask divisions in their party as with their desire not to undercut the commander-in-chief.

A few internationalist Republicans, such as McCain and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, have been loudly pushing the Clinton administration to at least begin planning for a ground war.

McCain wanted Lott to join Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle in backing a resolution authorizing the president to use any means necessary to achieve NATO's political and military objectives in Kosovo.

But the majority of Republicans are hesitant even to endorse the air war. McCain concedes that his voice is a minority in a party where the isolationist wing holds many of the key leadership posts.

"The credibility of NATO has been crippled," Patrick J. Buchanan, a presidential hopeful and leading isolationist voice, said of the Kosovo campaign.

"There's no doubt about it. But you do not send 100,000 American kids into combat and a permanent occupation to save the reputations, the faces and the careers of those responsible for this blunder."

Such talk clearly troubles administration aides. Calls for ground troops may actually help NATO, by keeping Milosevic guessing.

But calls to "cut our losses," as Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, another Republican presidential candidate, made last weekend, could embolden Milosevic to wait NATO out, the White House fears.

"That was a concern from the outset," a senior White House official said. "We want to maintain broad-based support, as broad as possible."

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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