War Powers Resolution sparks debate in House

Congress examines legality of Clinton's action in Yugoslavia

April 27, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The air campaign in Yugoslavia has reignited debate in Congress over the War Powers Resolution -- the Vietnam-era legislation that gives lawmakers the power to halt a move by any president to launch military operations on his own.

The issue will face a test today, when a key House committee is slated to vote on a pair of proposals -- filed under the War Powers Resolution -- to force a choice between a declaration of war by Congress and a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the NATO-led campaign within 30 days.

Most analysts predict the panel will end up opposing both measures, which are sponsored by Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican, either altering them substantially or recommending they be voted down.

But no matter what action the panel recommends, the full House will be required to consider the two measures in balloting expected this week.

The Senate will face similar votes next month. Eventually, the resolution could prompt a court ruling on the legality of Clinton's action in the Balkans.

A congressional challenge to Clinton's policy may seem like the last thing the nation needs in trying to grapple with the complex situation in Kosovo. But it's precisely what the authors of the War Powers Resolution had in mind when they voted in 1973 to write the measure into law.

The legislation, sparked by President Nixon's decision to bomb Cambodia and enacted by Congress over his veto, sought to give lawmakers a tool to ensure no president would again be able to plunge the nation into the kind of military quagmire the Vietnam War turned out to be.

Over the past 26 years, however, the act has had little impact. Presidents of both parties have ignored it, launching a broad array of military operations -- including invasions of Grenada, Panama and Iraq -- without the resolution coming into play.

Some critics insist the act is extraneous, arguing that lawmakers have the power to block presidential military incursions by refusing to appropriate the funds required to carry them out. But Congress has rarely used that power, particularly if the move might endanger U.S. forces overseas.

In the current case, the handling of NATO's limited air war combined with the dramatic television footage of refugees fleeing from Serb forces in Kosovo clearly has left lawmakers conflicted over what to do.

"Everybody's in a quandary," said Republican Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, a critic of Clinton's handling of the Yugoslavia operation who is reluctant to do anything that might undermine U.S. forces in the region.

In brief, the War Powers Resolution requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours after launching any large-scale military operation. It establishes strict procedures by which Congress can challenge his decision to use military force.

Supporters point out that under the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war. But both Republican and Democratic presidents -- including Clinton -- have branded the resolution unconstitutional and an infringement on the president's authority as commander-in-chief.

The measure was hardly mentioned until Campbell introduced the two proposals that the House International Relations Committee will take up today. Even House GOP leaders, no friends of Clinton's, are reluctant to see the measures come to a vote.

"I think it's a dumb law, I think it's a dangerous law, I think it's an unconstitutional law," Illinois Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde said last week.

"Nobody follows the law. We should have gotten rid of it years ago."

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