WASHINGTON — The Democratic-controlled Senate, reacting to a new outbreak of hostilities in the Persian Gulf, on Friday expressed support for invoking the controversial 1973 War Powers Resolution against President Reagan's gulf policy.
By a vote of 52 to 37, the Senate defeated a motion to kill a measure sponsored by Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.) that would invoke the War Powers Resolution in the gulf.
The vote reflected a growing sense of dread in Congress that shooting in the Persian Gulf will lead to more deaths of American servicemen.
"We're trying to save American boys' lives," said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.). "There isn't any doubt where this is headed."
But faced with a threatened GOP filibuster, the Senate stopped short of actually trying to pass the Weicker measure and leaders of both parties later introduced a compromise bill that they hoped would end the legislative stalemate over the War Powers Resolution by next week.
Under the War Powers Resolution, a product of the Vietnam era that was enacted over the veto of then-President Richard M. Nixon, a President must report to Congress within 48 hours after American troops face "imminent hostilities." Troops then must be withdrawn within 90 days unless Congress votes to let them remain.
Ever since last July, when Reagan began providing U.S. Navy escorts for Kuwaiti oil tankers traveling under the American flag, the President has consistently argued that the War Powers Resolution does not apply in this situation. On Friday, he held to that position.
"You can't have 535 secretaries of state," Reagan said during an interview with Cable News Network--a reference to the number of lawmakers in Congress.
But Friday's vote marked a dramatic change in the attitude of a majority of senators since Sept. 18, when the chamber voted 50 to 41 to table a similar resolution. In the interim, there have been two separate exchanges of fire between Iranian boats and U.S. helicopters.
The most surprising vote switch was that of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a conservative Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Nunn, who argued a week ago that the War Powers Resolution was too broad to be invoked in the gulf, voted with the majority Friday.
Nevertheless, Weicker and his allies, most of them Democrats, conceded that they never could muster sufficient votes to break a filibuster. Just last week, they collected 54 votes in an effort to end the filibuster, six short of the necessary 60.
Considerably Weaker Proposal
The compromise proposal, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), would require the President to report to Congress within 60 days. After 90 days, it would permit an expedited vote in the Senate on Reagan's policy of escorting the reflagged tankers. It makes no mention of the War Powers Resolution.
The Byrd-Warner proposal is considerably weaker than an earlier effort at compromise authored by Byrd and Nunn. But a spokesman for Byrd defended it as the strongest measure that the Senate could possibly enact in light of the GOP filibuster threat.
"This will at least get us a vote on the Persian Gulf policy come January," the spokesman said.
Weicker argued that the Senate instead should invoke the War Powers Resolution because U.S. servicemen are clearly involved in hostilities under the terms of the law.
"The law is there on the books," he said. "It should be lived up to."
A Question of Commitment
Likewise, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asserted that the President would be in a better political position to carry out his policy in the Persian Gulf if he complied with the act.
"If we're going to get into a protracted war in the Middle East, why not let the American people say where we are going?" he asked.
But Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) forcefully defended Reagan's view of the War Powers Resolution.
"My own view, as one who took part in the 1973 debate and voted for the resolution, is that it was not crafted to handle the kind of situation we have in the gulf," he said. "It was intended to do one main thing: To keep what started out as one-shot, in-and-out interventions in shooting wars from turning into permanent commitments--permanent American involvement in those wars."