U.S., Russian legislators try diplomacy

Delegation to Vienna seeks peace opening

April 30, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An unlikely assortment of House lawmakers -- including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican -- headed to Vienna last night on a mission to meet with some of their Russian counterparts to try to devise a resolution to the conflict in Kosovo.

Led by Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, the mission is described as an effort to find common ground with members of the Russian Duma, the lower house of parliament. Russia is a traditional ally of Serbia.

Weldon, who was previously tapped by House leaders to be a liaison to the Duma, began to receive e-mail and phone calls on the matter from Russian legislators about two weeks ago.

"He doesn't speak for the U.S. government or NATO," Michael Barbera, Weldon's chief of staff, said of his boss. "But he wants to see where there's some common ground with the Russians, and they'll take whatever ideas that come out of it back to their government."

The White House, which has signaled that it does not want any free-lance diplomatic missions, has neither approved of nor objected to Weldon's efforts.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert also withheld his approval of the mission. But he allowed it to be sanctioned by the House Armed Services Committee as an official congressional delegation. House aides say the talks are to be observed by a State Department official and a personal envoy of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

An earlier proposal by Weldon to go to Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, was flatly rejected by Clinton administration officials.

Weldon's group includes some of the most outspoken congressional critics of President Clinton's leadership in the crisis, such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat of Croatian descent, and Bartlett, a conservative Republican who has called for an end to the U.S. role in the bombardment.

Also scheduled to attend are Reps. Jim Gibbons of Nevada, H. James Saxton of New Jersey and Joseph R. Pitts and Donald L. Sherwood of Pennsylvania, all Republicans; Corinne Brown of Florida, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Maurice D. Hinchey of New York, all Democrats; and the House's lone independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont.

Bartlett has signed onto a legal challenge filed by Rep. Tom Campbell, a California Republican, against the administration's constitutional right to order the airstrikes without congressional consent. Nonetheless, Bartlett said, he thought the talks in Vienna might produce some progress toward peace.

"The country that has the most influence over Serbia is Russia," Bartlett said. "We are meeting with our equivalents from the Russian Duma, and we are discussing a framework for a resolution."

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