House vote opposes ground war

In rebuke to Clinton, Hill claims authority over use of U.S. troops

Air war support withheld

Some Democrats fear signal to Milosevic of political disarray

April 29, 1999|By Karen Hosler and Jonathan Weisman | Karen Hosler and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a sharp rebuke to President Clinton, the House vented its alarm about the conflict in Yugoslavia by voting yesterday to bar the use of ground troops without congressional approval and by withholding its support for the air war already under way.

Hours after Clinton pleaded with lawmakers to oppose legislation that could undercut American unity, the House voted 248-180 for a bill that would deny money for U.S. ground forces unless Congress provided a specific authorization.

Later, the House failed on a tie vote to endorse a resolution, approved last month by the Senate, authorizing U.S. participation in the 5-week-old NATO air war.

"This is not a unilateral decision that should be made by the president," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican who argued for a greater role for Congress in determining whether to wage war.

But some Democrats called the failure of the House even to support the air campaign irresponsible.

"I have served no worse day in the House," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said angrily after the vote. "I hope the message that we sent is not that this is a divided House or nation, but a nation that sees its duty and responsibility as a leader of the free world."

During the contentious debate -- the House's first extended discussion of Kosovo since the NATO bombardment began March 24 -- membersadvocated proposals ranging from declaring war on Serbia to immediately halting the U.S. bombardment in Yugoslavia.

Senate leaders said there could be a vote within a week on the House-passed proposal on ground troops.

A spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert defended yesterday's votes as a reflection of bipartisan unhappiness with Clinton's conduct of the Kosovo campaign. Twenty-six Democrats joined with a sizable majority of Republicans in refusing to endorse the air war.

Clinton tried in vain to head off the confrontation. Meeting yesterday morning with a bipartisan group of 46 lawmakers, he said that while he still saw no need for ground troops in Kosovo, if he later decided they were needed, he would seek Congress' support before sending them.

The passage of the measure on ground troops, he warned the lawmakers, could undermine NATO's effort to stop the Serbian campaign of "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. He told them that he had not fought to maintain the unity of the NATO allies at the summit in Washington only to see that unity undercut by Congress.

"I stressed that the 19 NATO allies are speaking with a single voice," Clinton told reporters after the meeting. "America must continue to speak with a single voice as well."

But the Republican-led House was not content with the president's assurances, fearing that he might still send ground forces to Kosovo without their approval.

Skeptical about Clinton

It rejected a more drastic proposal to pull U.S. forces out of the air war in Yugoslavia. Yet many members expressed skepticism that Clinton would yield to congressional authority on the conduct of the war.

"Let's make this relationship clear," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who said he would be more confident if Clinton's obligation to obtain congressional approval for an invasion force were made a matter of law.

Many Democrats argued, however, that the legislation was unnecessary and potentially harmful to the war effort against the Yugoslav forces of President Slobodan Milosevic.

"Mr. Milosevic will be listening carefully to what we say here today," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "Do you really want to say today, `We don't know what we're doing. We probably won't be for ground troops.' "?

Yesterday's debate was prompted by Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican, who wants to seek a court test of a decades-long debate between presidents of both parties and Congress over which branch of government has authority to launch a war.

"Shall we allow the war, shall we stop the war?" Campbell asked his colleagues in urging them to take a stand one way or the other. "This is our moment. Let's not let it pass."

Leaders of both parties have been trying to avoid a confrontation with Clinton over the issue, in part because they do not want to take responsibility for the outcome of the military conflict.

What began as a dry constitutional debate yesterday became an emotional free-for-all on the wisdom and conduct of the NATO campaign.

"The voices of isolation and appeasement are reverberating within these halls," warned Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.

"This is not the time to cut and run. When the dust settles, this will prove to be NATO's finest hour."

The assertion of Congress' right to approve ground troops -- intended as a middle ground option between declaring war or stopping the bombardment -- reflected dismay about the Kosovo conflict in both parties. The proposal drew 45 Democratic votes and all but 16 Republican votes.

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