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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Congress Can't Get a Grip on Kosovo Policy

Crisis: Escalation of fighting prevents lawmakers--back from recess--from taking stand on war. Members can do little but support Clinton.

April 14, 1999|ART PINE and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Congress confronted the Kosovo crisis Tuesday, hopelessly at sea about how to react to the escalating military operation in the Balkans and desperately thrashing about to find a role for itself.

With the war in Yugoslavia now well underway, lawmakers returning from a two-week recess conceded that their pre-vacation plans to demand a role in setting U.S. policy had been overtaken by events, leaving them little to do but support President Clinton's policy.

As a result, Republican congressional leaders shelved any plans for a quick vote on U.S. military involvement in Yugoslavia and instead adopted a wait-and-see posture that essentially allows Clinton free rein, at least for the present.

Even on the hot-button question of whether the United States should send combat ground forces into Yugoslavia, most lawmakers demurred, saying only that the administration "should not preclude any options" in the war.

And GOP leaders said there was no doubt Congress would approve--perhaps as early as this week--the $3 billion to $4 billion in emergency funding that Clinton is expected to seek for the military and humanitarian aid operation.

The lawmakers' dilemma reflected several factors--conflicting public opinion on the Kosovo crisis, a lack of any consensus in Congress and a reluctance to undermine the U.S. stance on the need for military action in the eyes of the world.

"It's a very difficult position," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) told reporters after a Tuesday morning briefing at the White House for about 60 lawmakers of both parties.

"Many of us disagree with this policy and are concerned about it, but we don't want to send a signal other than that we're behind the troops," said Hutchison, who had been a leading critic of Clinton's policies before the congressional recess. She added, "I don't think we in Congress should do anything right now."

The absence of consensus was especially frustrating to many Republicans, who had been planning before the recess to pillory Clinton's policy on Kosovo as poorly conceived in hopes of embarrassing the White House.

But Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a vocal Clinton critic, said the war had escalated so rapidly that it was too late for Congress to weigh in on the initial decision to launch the military strikes.

Both House and Senate leaders said it probably would be sometime next week before they made any decisions on what Congress should do to make itself heard on the Kosovo crisis, and even that was uncertain.

Participants in Tuesday's meeting said Clinton told lawmakers he did not intend to ask Congress for formal authorization to send ground troops into the region. Clinton still contends he has no plans to deploy ground troops except as part of an invited NATO peacekeeping force.

Congressional leaders made plans for 20 to 30 lawmakers to fly to the Balkans this weekend for briefings by U.S. military leaders and a firsthand look at humanitarian rescue efforts there.

Meanwhile, individual lawmakers introduced a plethora of resolutions, ranging from barring the deployment of U.S. ground troops without Congress' approval to providing arms and aid to Kosovo guerrillas.

House and Senate leaders conceded they will have to confront a pair of resolutions filed under the 1973 War Powers Act that may force Congress to take a stand by early next month.

The measures, introduced by Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose), essentially would give lawmakers the choice of formally declaring war against Yugoslavia or requiring Clinton to pull U.S. troops out within 30 days.

Under the War Powers Act, congressional leaders would be required to schedule floor votes on the two resolutions by early May in the House and about 2 1/2 weeks later in the Senate.

Campbell said Tuesday that he hopes the resolutions will be taken up together so that lawmakers will have a clear choice. He also wants to pave the way for a possible court challenge if his legislative effort fails.

Lawmakers suggested that at least part of the reason for the absence of any consensus was that voters still are all over the lot on the Kosovo question--and have been conveying that view to Congress.

"There's a lot of mixed feelings back home--they don't know why we're there," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), who, like other members of the House and Senate, just returned from two weeks of sampling voters' views.

Even some once hard-line Republicans themselves were plainly conflicted.

"I'm absolutely against" military involvement in Yugoslavia, said Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.), "but if the president is going to do it against our wishes, we're going to have to do it big."

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