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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Battle Over Clinton's Authority

April 29, 1999

In a challenge to President Clinton over Kosovo, the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to limit his authority to use ground forces in Yugoslavia. The debate in the Capitol was the latest in a history of conflicts over which branch of government holds the power to wage war. It also was marked by seeming contradictions in the attitudes of Congress toward the current military action:

* Although Republicans were behind the vote to limit Clinton's authority, GOP leaders plan to double Clinton'sown request for $6 billion to finance the continuing campaign.

* The Senate, which voted last month to support airstrikes, scheduled a hearing today before its Foreign Relations Committee to vote on a measure by a bipartisan group to authorize Clinton to use "all means necessary" to prosecute the war.

Clinton, meanwhile, pledged he would seek congressional support should he resort to the use of ground troops but reiterated that he does not expect them to be necessary.

A RESOLUTION WITHOUT RESOLVE

The War Powers Act of 1973 was meant to clarify the roles of Congress and the president with regard to waging war. It has been a source of controversy and conflict between Congress and the White House since its enactment.

BACKGROUND

The framers of the Constitution expressly gave Congress the power to declare war; at the same time, they named the president as commander in chief of U.S. armed forces. Since then, in more than 200 instances when presidents have sent troops into armed conflict, just five have followed a declaration of war.

RESOLUTION'S GENESIS

The War Powers Act was enacted in an effort to bring an end to the undeclared war in Vietnam. It requires the president to notify Congress "in every possible instance" before sending troops into areas of potential hostilities, to justify his action and to estimate how long troops might be engaged. The act also requires that the troops be withdrawn within 60 days if Congress does not authorize their presence.

EXERCISE OF THE ACT

The War Powers Act was invoked in 1975 when U.S. forces retook the U.S. merchant ship Mayaguez after its seizure by Cambodian forces in the Gulf of Siam, but the 60-day restriction was moot because the fight was over and U.S. forces had left the area.

PRESIDENTIAL DEFIANCE

Since the Mayaguez incident, presidents have mostly ignored or defied the resolution, calling it unconstitutional because it impedes their ability to set foreign policy. Since 1983, American troops have been sent to Panama, Grenada, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans. Only once, during the Persian Gulf crisis in 1991, did Congress approve any of those actions, but then-President Bush insisted he could have proceeded without legislators' consent.

Sources: Times staff reports, Baltimore Sun

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