House leaders trade recriminations

Tie vote on airstrikes shows political fissure

April 30, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Political vitriol, barely contained since last year's impeachment vote, erupted anew in the House yesterday in the wake of votes Wednesday that sent a message of growing alarm in Congress over the course of the Kosovo conflict.

The finger-pointing and partisan divisions resulting from the House votes -- particularly the refusal to endorse the NATO air campaign -- raise questions about Congress' ability to work with President Clinton in directing the U.S. involvement in the conflict and in paying for it.

House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt blamed "right-wing extremists" for orchestrating what he called "a low moment in foreign policy and the history of this institution."

Gephardt and the No. 2 House Democrat, Rep. David E. Bonior, said that Republican Whip Tom DeLay had spent "several hours of arm-twisting" among 92 Republicans who on Wednesday had helped vote down a proposal to halt the U.S. role in the airstrikes.

Later that day, when the issue of whether to support the airstrikes was posed, Bonior noted, only 31 Republicans voted in favor. That proposal failed on a 213 to 213 tie.

"The American people support the airstrikes by a 2-to-1 margin, and American pilots are risking their lives," Bonior said. "Unfortunately, the group of Republicans that control this House are so out of step with the American people and with this nation's moral responsibility that they are willing, even eager, to play politics with vital decisions of war and peace."

DeLay, who makes no secret of his desire to prevent Republicans from associating themselves with what he calls the "Clinton war," fired back in kind. He delighted in noting that 26 Democrats also voted against the resolution to support the air campaign.

"Mr. Bonior and Mr. Gephardt bringing that resolution to the floor was yet another in a series of Kosovo blunders, they simply didn't have the votes," DeLay said in a statement. "I suggest that rather than blaming me, they should get their act together before they embarrass themselves further."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert was among the Republicans who voted with the Democrats to support the airstrikes. But Hastert encouraged Republicans to "vote their conscience," and said he found it "interesting" that a nearly equal number of Republicans and Democrats chose to break ranks with their party on the vote.

"I think on a bipartisan basis the Congress signaled that they have an uneasy feeling about what is going on right now," Hastert said.

Maryland delegation

In the Maryland delegation, three of the four Republicans voted with Hastert and the majority of Democrats to support the airstrikes. The exception was Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland.

Three of Maryland's Democrats also voted in favor of the NATO air campaign. The fourth Democrat, Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, was out sick with the flu, his office said, and did not vote.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said he voted to support the bombardment because he believes that the United States has a national interest at stake in the Kosovo conflict. But Gilchrest said the House's refusal to back the airstrikes reflected Clinton's failure to make a compelling case to Congress for the NATO campaign.

"It was almost magical that this vote should end in a tie, because it sends a message from Congress to the president who has put us through so many other bizarre events that we're not comfortable with his leadership," Gilchrest said.

As for Bonior's charge that the Republicans are out of step with the American people, as measured by public opinion surveys, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County said some of his colleagues fear what might happen once casualties occur.

"The problem is the American people have gotten used to these clean little wars," Ehrlich said. "Polls show their support for the NATO effort drops when casualties are mentioned."

Ehrlich said he voted to support the bombing campaign "because the alternative was to do nothing about the killing" of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Public opinion polls

George C. Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University, noted that House members, whose terms last just two years and who are thought to be especially sensitive to the views of voters, nevertheless often seem out of sync with public opinion polls.

"They do it all the time," he said. "The best recent example was impeachment," when the House voted to impeach Clinton for his efforts to conceal his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Polls at the time showed that about two-thirds of Americans considered impeachment to be too harsh a penalty.

House members, Edwards said, are more attuned to the views of their individual districts than they are to the overall public.

"And it's much easier to challenge the president on these symbolic measures," he said. "They are free votes."

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