YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Crisis in Yugoslavia

House Vote on Air War Bodes Ill for President, Analysts Say

Politics: Lack of support is seen as sign that lawmakers are not convinced that Clinton is handling the crisis well.


WASHINGTON — The refusal of the House to endorse the U.S.-led air campaign against Yugoslavia shows an ominous slippage in support for the war just where President Clinton can least afford it--among lawmakers of his own party, analysts said Thursday.

Although Republicans voted against the measure by an unsurprising 6-1 margin in the balloting late Wednesday, a startling 26 Democrats proved willing to go on record opposing the air operation. The result was a 213-213 vote, a tie that killed the resolution and thwarted what had been designed to be a routine congressional show of support for U.S. troops.

While the White House on Thursday continued to brush off the House action, there was plenty for Clinton to worry about. Just as U.S. policymakers were arguing that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is losing support at home, Clinton himself is facing a similar scenario.

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst, said the sizable exodus of Democrats in the air campaign vote--along with the defection of 45 party lawmakers on a measure concerning the possible deployment of ground troops--is "a sign of trouble" looming over Clinton's future dealings with Congress on Kosovo, the separatist province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia.

While polls show that the public generally favors what Clinton is doing in Yugoslavia, Sabato asserted that the support "is neither rock solid nor very deep." And Wednesday's votes, he said, drove home the point that the president has not yet convinced members of Congress that he is handling the crisis well.

Clinton has "a month or two, at most, to resolve this conflict" before he will face rapidly growing opposition from both Republicans and his own party, Sabato predicted. "Congress isn't going to be tolerant of a long war."

Events Thursday suggested that the congressional response to the Balkan crisis still is in flux.

The House Appropriations Committee approved an emergency bill providing $12.9 billion in extra Pentagon spending--double the $6 billion that Clinton had requested for the campaign. But analysts said the bill could face some rough sledding when it reaches the House floor.

Besides the $6 billion Clinton seeks, the measure includes $2 billion for a military pay raise, $3 billion for improving military readiness and $1 billion for military construction. The $1-billion portion includes money for a parking lot and "vehicle wash" in Germany.

Congressional staffers said some lawmakers are beginning to have second thoughts about supporting too big a funding bill for fear that the "add-ons" would erode the projected Social Security surplus, which the Republicans have vowed to protect.

Lawmakers said some GOP conservatives already had begun to pressure the Senate Appropriations Committee to hold down its own version of the bill to about $7 billion, rather than the $11.2 billion that the panel's chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), has suggested.

Meanwhile, the Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), filed under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, that would authorize Clinton to use "all necessary force"--including ground troops--to win the war against Yugoslavia.

Although GOP leaders reportedly were trying to work out a compromise, aides said there was no consensus on what language the Senate should adopt. One staffer said Republicans "want to digest the meaning of [Wednesday's] House votes."

Recriminations were the name of the game in the aftermath of the House's failure to endorse the air campaign. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) charged that Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) went to extra lengths to cajole Republicans to vote against the measure as a way to embarrass Clinton. DeLay denied it.

At the same time, Gephardt and House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) were clearly on the defensive over why the Democratic leadership couldn't persuade one of the 26 Democratic defectors to switch sides--all that was needed to pass the resolution.

Interviews with key Democrats showed that much of the blame for the failure of the House to support the president's air campaign could be laid at the doorstep of House Democratic leaders.

They badly underestimated the defections of both Republicans and Democrats on the measure. They did not finally decide to bring the measure up until the very last minute. And they plainly did not push very hard to keep Democrats in line.

By the time the Democratic leaders realized that the motion was going to fail, most rank-and-file members had voted and rushed home. As a result, it was too late to arm-twist any of the defectors into changing their votes to avoid embarrassing Clinton--a usually persuasive argument.

How all this ultimately will play out on Capitol Hill remains unclear. Sabato's warnings aside, much is likely to depend upon how the air campaign fares in coming weeks and whether the public continues to support it. How much attention Clinton lavishes on Congress also will count.

Jerold Duquette, a political analyst at Virginia's George Mason University, argued that, despite the signal that Wednesday night's vote may have sent to Milosevic and to Washington's allies, the bevy of conflicting votes the lawmakers made that day may prove fortuitous.

Having voted in one day--as the House did--against formally declaring war on Yugoslavia, against pulling U.S. forces out, against supporting the air campaign and against deploying ground troops without congressional consent, Duquette said, lawmakers now have "maximum room" to remain uncommitted.

"It's a tie--nobody loses," Duquette said.

Los Angeles Times Articles