Congress wary of vote on Kosovo ground troops

Bipartisan efforts seek to boost Clinton's power or halt U.S. involvement

War In Yugoslavia

April 25, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congress appears paralyzed over whether to vote on sending ground troops into Kosovo, despite bipartisan efforts to force action on the issue.

Polls show that an overwhelming majority of the public believes that ground troops will be needed to achieve NATO's military objectives in Kosovo and that President Clinton should seek approval from Congress before sending troops.

Yet the broadest agreement in Congress so far seems to be on the desire for Clinton to continue taking the lead in determining what course of action to pursue.

"They don't want to vote on it," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said of his colleagues. "They don't want to face it. It's a tough thing to go back home if you're wrong," and disaster ensues.

Exceptions exist at both extremes, where bipartisan groups of lawmakers are pushing for votes to give Clinton more war-making power or to immediately halt the U.S. role in Kosovo.

`All necessary force'

Most prominent is a proposal offered by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and other senior members of both parties in the Senate that would authorize the president to use "all necessary force" to achieve NATO objectives in Yugoslavia.

"It's unconscionable that we should be proceeding to this without the Congress of the United States taking a vote," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who supports the McCain resolution.

But the majority of lawmakers appear to be waiting for Clinton to decide on the next move and to make an appeal for support that Congress could not refuse.

"If the president asks for it, he'd have a fairly decent chance of getting it," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican. "He'd have to make the case for it, though."

Resistance predicted

Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, predicted greater resistance.

"If the president were to ask for authority to invade Kosovo and drive the Serbs out, I think the Congress would not give that permission," Kerrey said. "But I emphasize, `I think.' I don't know.

"If the Serbs are withdrawn [from Kosovo], if it looks like you could move in there relatively safely, that might be different."

Likewise, many House members seem reluctant to force the issue of ground forces.

"I don't think right now there's very much enthusiasm for ground troops," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat. "But at the same time, I think there's a feeling that they can't be ruled out."

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat who favors the airstrikes but not the use of ground troops, said that sentiment had become more receptive to sending in U.S. ground forces.

But, he said, "there's still overwhelming sentiment against ground troops."

Republicans are perhaps even more wary about how the military operation in Kosovo is going, said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.

"If Bill Clinton is going to embrace a new strategy that involves winning a ground war, he is going to face significant opposition in Congress," said Ehrlich, an assistant House whip.

Nothing gained from vote

In both houses, Republican and Democratic leaders are trying to avoid an ill-timed test of congressional sentiment on the issue. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott sees nothing to be gained by voting on the McCain resolution.

If such a proposal passed, Lott noted, Congress would be authorizing the president to use more force than the president himself has asked for -- thus putting the lawmakers dangerously out in front of Clinton.

Message of disunity

And if the measure failed, Lott contends, this would send a message of American disunity to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

Meanwhile, House leaders are grappling with a drive by Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican, to inject Congress into the decision-making process. Campbell, who agrees that most lawmakers would prefer to avoid responsibility for making a wrong decision on Kosovo, wants to give his colleagues a choice: declare war or immediately withdraw all forces.

Votes on those proposals are scheduled to come up in the House this week, along with a third proposal that would require Clinton to seek prior congressional approval for ground troops.

As a practical matter, Congress probably cannot block Clinton from ordering U.S. troops into Kosovo. No president has acknowledged the authority of the 1973 War Powers Act to limit his actions as commander in chief. Republicans, as well as Democrats, have contended that that Vietnam-era law is unconstitutional.

Though it holds the purse strings, Congress could hardly deny supplies to soldiers in the field.

"I do not want American soldiers in Kosovo," said Rep. C. W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "But we don't want to do anything that appears to send a message to our own troops that we were not supportive of them.

Sen. Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, said he's going to express his opposition by trying to hold up a bill containing $6 billion in emergency money for the Kosovo conflict. "I think this is the last time Congress will really have a shot at influencing policy on the war," Cleland said of the spending bill. "This is the ballgame."

Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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