WASHINGTON — With U.S. warships now poised off the Haitian coast, the White House and its Democratic allies in the Senate on Tuesday defeated a measure that would have prevented U.S. troops from participating in peacekeeping missions where they would be under the control of foreign commanders.
But intensive lobbying continued behind the scenes over another, more serious challenge to President Clinton's ability to commit U.S. forces to operations led by the United Nations. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) has announced his intention to introduce legislation limiting the conditions under which Clinton could dispatch troops to Haiti without prior congressional consent.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said the Republicans remain confident that they eventually will get enough support from Democrats who are "gun-shy" after the American experience in Somalia to pass Dole's restrictions.
The White House could take some satisfaction in Tuesday's vote, which turned aside an amendment to a defense spending bill offered by Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) by a vote of 65 to 33. Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed reservations about its constitutionality.
There was "a growing concern," added an aide to the Democratic leadership, that Congress was allowing "panic over the fiasco in Somalia to push it too far and too fast" toward undermining the President's authority as commander in chief.
Dole said Tuesday night that his negotiations with the White House are continuing in an effort to find a compromise that would avert a major clash between Congress and the executive over presidential authority in the areas of military and foreign policy.
"We're trying to reach some balance between the Congress and the President in this very difficult area," Dole said, adding that he still wanted "to give the President the benefit of the doubt . . . in foreign policy."
While those negotiations continued, the State Department denied reports that refugees fleeing Haiti by boat will not be returned to Port-au-Prince until the violence there has subsided.
State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said there had been no change in the policy under which most Haitians picked up at sea will be returned to the island. "Interdiction and repatriation . . . will continue," he said.
Immigration officials will determine, on a case-by-case basis, which Haitians have grounds to fear persecution and thus legitimately qualify as refugees. But political events in Haiti and the hardship caused by the U.N. embargo will not lead to blanket approval of their requests for refugee status, McCurry said.
Administration officials plan to have any boat people returned to docks at Port-au-Prince, and do not anticipate that U.S. vessels taking Haitians back to their homeland will meet with the same opposition that greeted the U.S. ship that tried to land troops at the port earlier this month.
Although the focus shifted to Haiti, Somalia remained the backdrop for the Senate debate as Democrats and Republicans argued well into the evening over the Nickles amendment.
"There is no question that the mistakes in Somalia precipitated all of this," said Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.).
While Administration supporters argued that the two situations are not comparable and that Clinton has handled the Haitian crisis correctly so far, it was clear from the tenor of the debate that Somalia has undermined congressional trust in the President's ability to manage foreign policy.
This was reinforced by the stark nature of the Republican attacks, which went beyond normal partisanship in many cases.
Defending the Nickles amendment against charges that it went too far in restricting presidential authority, Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) said Congress was stepping into a leadership vacuum created by "a failed policy carried out by incompetent people." He singled out Defense Secretary Les Aspin for particular criticism, referring to him as someone who has "difficulty getting a full sentence out of his mouth."
But as lawmakers took to the Senate floor, it became apparent as the day wore on that Nickles had lost even some Republican support for his amendment, which would have barred funding for any U.N. peacekeeping mission in which U.S. forces were placed under foreign command without congressional approval--except in the event of an emergency or a decision by the President that national security interests were at stake.
"There is a great temptation for Congress to exercise greater authority in foreign policy because of the (Administration's) indecision and vacillation . . . but we may be going too far . . . in undermining the institution of the presidency," warned Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).
While it was eventually defeated, Senate leaders were obliged to provide members who voted against Nickles with the political cover of an alternative amendment.
Adopted 96 to 2, the alternative expressed the Senate's concern that U.S. forces always be under the control of "qualified commanders." It also asked, but did not oblige, Clinton to report to Congress on the scope, aims and costs of any military mission within 48 hours of a decision to place U.S. troops under foreign command.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster contributed to this report.
* EMBARGO IN FORCE: The multinational flotilla off Haiti inspects first ship. A10