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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Kosovo Far From Most Minds in U.S.

Congress: Lawmakers say relatively few constituents are speaking out about Balkan issue.

April 01, 1999|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINCHESTER, Va. — When Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) traveled to the far reaches of his district for a town hall meeting here the other night, he fielded questions for a full hour about all manner of things--nursing home problems, truck safety, the anthrax vaccine--before anyone asked about U.S. involvement in Kosovo.

Finally a woman asked whether Congress would get involved if President Clinton decides to deploy ground troops. But altogether, Wolf spent less time on Balkan policy than he did discussing the length of acceleration lanes on the local interstate.

But about 600 miles away, Rep. Bob Riley (R-Ala.) had a very different experience. He tried to talk to constituents about budget policy and Social Security, but all they wanted to talk about was the distant province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia.

"To say that's the hot topic in town meetings would be an understatement," said Riley, whose district is home to two big military facilities.

At a time when U.S. public opinion about the war in Yugoslavia is clearly a work in progress, members of Congress around the country are in as good a position as anyone to see it evolve. They are spending this week and next in their home districts, where constituents often treat lawmakers as sounding boards for their own views of government policy. In most areas of the country, members of Congress say they are hearing relatively little--some say shockingly little--from constituents about one of the biggest U.S. military actions in Europe since World War II. What they do hear is generally not positive, as constituents express anxiety and uncertainty about what is to come.

"The level of attention and interest in it is not as high as it's been on other issues in the past," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "But most of the calls coming in have been less than supportive of the president."

But there are pockets of the country where voters' passions are running high, such as in the Eastern European enclaves of New York and Chicago or in military-dominated districts where people feel more connection to the conflict in a province most Americans paid little attention to a month ago.

No one knows what the vox populi will be about the rapidly changing situation in the Balkans by the time Congress reconvenes after its two-week recess. But what lawmakers are hearing back home--and what they are saying there in support of or in opposition to current U.S. military action--will have a powerful influence on the domestic political environment as Clinton makes ever more difficult decisions about what to do if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign fails to stop reported atrocities by Yugoslav forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

National polls have shown that a narrow majority of Americans supports U.S.-led airstrikes against Yugoslav forces, but that future use of ground troops faces stiff opposition. A Los Angeles Times Poll last week found that 53% of respondents supported the NATO air operation, but that only 29% backed the U.S. deploying ground troops.

At this stage, however, relatively few people are expressing their opinions with great passion to their representatives in Congress. Even many elected officials paid little attention to the conflict until mid-March, when the House approved a resolution supporting the use of U.S. troops in the region.

"For the average American out there in Ohio or Los Angeles, boy, that's a long way away," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has received only about three dozen constituent e-mail messages on the Balkan issue over the last week. By contrast, his office received 1,700 e-mail messages a day in December during the week before the House vote on impeaching the president. Dreier's office has received a trickle of Kosovo-related e-mail.

Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said he spent 90 minutes with a group of Californians this week, and no one asked him about Kosovo. And, for that matter, he did not bring it up.

"Nobody seems to be exercised in either direction," said an aide to one House Republican from New York. "I just don't understand. On Bosnia, our phones were ringing off the hook."

However, some Americans are fuming about what they see as an unjustified U.S. intervention in a messy civil war.

Rep. Greg Ganske (R-Iowa) received one e-mail from a constituent saying, "Ha! Why don't you guys in Washington just send our American troops to any country who has a Hatfield and a McCoy shooting at each other?"

When Ganske asked at two town meetings this week for a show of hands on whether ground troops should be used, not one hand was raised.

In Alabama, Riley said his plans to discuss the Republicans' legislative agenda were swamped by complaints about U.S. policy in Kosovo, especially from the many veterans in his district who expressed wariness about the operation.

"There is still a tremendous amount of opinion that we should not be there at all," said Riley, who voted against the House resolution supporting the use of U.S. forces.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Eliot L. Engel's constituents are clamoring in support of U.S. military action in behalf of Kosovo. The New York Democrat's district is thick with Americans of Albanian descent--including many with connections to Kosovo.

But in Wolf's district, which stretches from the suburbs of Washington west to the Shenandoah Valley, the war in Yugoslavia seems very far from hitting home. That may change if the crisis turns into a ground war or costs American lives.

Wolf tried to reassure people at his town meeting by telling them that "President Clinton has said there will be no deployment of ground troops." The crowd broke into skeptical laughter.

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