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Crisis in Yugoslavia

2 House Votes Point to Lack of Support for Balkan Action

Congress: If passed by Senate, bill limiting use of U.S. ground troops probably would not survive a veto. Refusal to back NATO's air campaign comes as surprise.

April 29, 1999|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The House took a clear slap Wednesday at President Clinton's handling of the Balkan crisis, voting to limit his ability to send ground troops into Yugoslavia and to reject a Senate resolution supporting NATO's air campaign.

By a vote of 249 to 180, House members approved a Republican-sponsored bill that would prohibit the president from using Pentagon funds to send U.S. ground troops into Yugoslavia without authorization from Congress. Those supporting the bill included 45 Democrats, but the margin of passage was well below the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a presidential veto.

Senate leaders disclosed that they are considering scheduling a vote later this week on a similar measure, but the outlook for passage there is uncertain.

In a second ballot--this one engineered by Democrats--lawmakers rejected by a tie vote a resolution the Senate passed in March endorsing the president's decision to participate in the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. That vote, largely along party lines, was 213 to 213.

The vote to deny support for the air campaign came as a surprise to House leaders in both parties. Republicans said they had expected the Democrats to prevail.

Clinton almost certainly would veto the ground troops bill, should it be sent to him, and the vote on supporting the air campaign has no binding effect. Still, the actions amounted to a major setback for the Clinton administration.

The administration has sought to put forward an image of solid support for its policies on the Kosovo crisis, both to keep its 18 NATO allies together and to increase pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

The bill concerning ground troops was pushed through by GOP leaders as part of an effort to embarrass the administration and brand the campaign in Yugoslavia as "the Clinton-Gore war." Republicans earlier rebuffed Democratic efforts to craft a bipartisan measure supporting the U.S. involvement.

In a statement after the vote, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he hoped Clinton would interpret passage of the ground troops bill "as a signal that he should better explain the goals, the costs and the long-term strategy of why we are there [in Yugoslavia]."

Clinton insists that he still has no plans to send U.S. ground troops into combat in the Balkans. But military experts have predicted that it may prove inevitable, and the United States and allied military leaders have begun reviewing contingency plans for a possible ground offensive to force Milosevic to withdraw from Kosovo--a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia--and allow hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees to return home.

At a morning White House meeting with lawmakers that preceded Wednesday's votes, Clinton pledged to ask Congress for its support before sending any ground forces into Yugoslavia. But White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said later that such a move would not amount to seeking formal authorization from the two houses.

Clinton had told reporters that he would welcome the support of Congress, so that Milosevic "will have no doubt that we had the determination and the patience to persevere until we prevailed."

But Lockhart said the White House opposed the bill requiring congressional authorization for ground troops, saying it would unduly hamper Clinton's authority and send a signal to Milosevic "that somehow could be misinterpreted" as evidence of division within the United States.

The president also said he was willing to go along with a Republican push to increase the $6 billion in emergency appropriations he is seeking to cover the cost of military and humanitarian relief operations in the Balkans.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to approve a $13-billion emergency bill today that includes a pay raise for military personnel. Senate leaders have hinted at a similarly sized measure. While Clinton did not say he would accept a bill that size, analysts say he may have no choice.

The Pentagon said the money must be approved by Memorial Day, or the military will have to cut into its day-to-day operations.

Wednesday's House action came as part of debate scheduled in connection with a pair of proposals brought up under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Invoking the resolution, Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose) wanted Congress to either formally declare war on Yugoslavia or order the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and equipment within 30 days.

The withdrawal bill was defeated in the House, 290 to 139. The measure to declare war was overwhelmingly rejected, 427 to 2. Casting the two "aye" votes were Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Gene Taylor (D-Miss.).

Campbell said he acted to force Congress to fulfill its constitutional duty to stand up and be counted on the question of sending U.S. forces into combat. Under the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war.

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