WASHINGTON — President Clinton consulted congressional leaders Wednesday on his policy toward Bosnia but continued to avoid a firm commitment to seek congressional approval before deciding to send American forces there.
The 1973 War Powers Act requires the President to notify Congress in most cases before sending troops into areas of potential hostilities and requires that the troops be withdrawn within 60 days if Congress does not authorize their presence.
The law was enacted over President Richard Nixon's veto. Each successive Administration has argued that it represents an unconstitutional infringement on the President's powers as commander in chief.
During the last 12 years of Republican administrations, Democrats in Congress have made a major issue of support for the War Powers Act. That puts Clinton and his aides in a potentially difficult situation, which they have tried to avoid by evading questions about precisely where they stand.
Clinton continued that approach Wednesday. "Ask my lawyer, I don't play lawyer," he said when asked at a White House photo session whether he believes the law is constitutional. "I think it's worked reasonably well."
Later, White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos said: "The President is reviewing the War Powers Act at this time. That is under review by the National Security Council and the counsel's office."
White House aides have fallen back on carefully worded pledges to consult with Congress in a manner that is "consistent with" the war powers law but not necessarily "pursuant to" it. Once Clinton decides on a course of action, he "will go to the Congress if it is required," Stephanopoulos said.
President George Bush followed a somewhat similar path before the Persian Gulf War. Bush argued that he did not need congressional authorization before sending troops to the Gulf but urged Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq before the actual war began. Bush insisted, however, that he had the power to go ahead with the attack if Congress voted against him.
Clinton's less clear-cut position appears to be acceptable to congressional leaders.
Although members of Congress have often touted the War Powers Act as an important safeguard against unbridled executive power, few over the last 20 years have relished the prospect of using it.
One indication of the weakness of the law came in the House on Wednesday when it finally got around to approving a resolution authorizing the sending of U.S. troops to Somalia. The authorization came five months after the troops were dispatched and the day after U.S. forces turned over control of the relief effort to the United Nations.
At a ceremony at the White House to honor troops returning from the African nation, Clinton linked their experiences with the events that may soon unfold in the former Yugoslav republics.
"Your successful return reminds us that other missions lie ahead for our nation," he said. "You have proved again that our involvement in multilateral operations need not be open-ended or ill-defined, that we can go abroad and accomplish some distinct objectives and then come home again when the mission is accomplished."
At a later White House ceremony, where he talked about the importance of rapid action on health care reform, Clinton defended his Administration against the charge that monitoring developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina has interfered with his other activities and that it has tried to do too many things at once.
"One of the most challenging things we have to do in this city at this time is to break a mind-set that we have one problem at a time and we'll get on it and we'll only think about that," Clinton said.