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Bush Opposes Deadline on Kosovo Troop Withdrawal

Politics: Presumptive presidential nominee's stand may doom Senate bill. Campaign official says Texas governor considers it 'legislative overreach.'

May 17, 2000|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared Tuesday his opposition to congressional legislation setting a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Kosovo, putting the GOP presidential contender at odds with prominent Republican lawmakers on a key foreign policy issue.

One of the measure's Republican sponsors predicted that Bush's opposition would kill the proposal, which would force the 5,900 U.S. troops now in Kosovo to leave the Yugoslavian province by July 1, 2001, unless the president wins a congressional resolution to keep them there.

The withdrawal deadline, which passed the Senate Appropriations Committee last week on a lopsided 23-to-3 vote, was attached as an amendment to a military construction bill expected to be taken up by the full Senate as early as today. The bill includes $4.7 billion to restore funds depleted by the war in Kosovo.

Bush, who is expected to receive the Republican presidential nomination, opposes the amendment because he considers it an example of "legislative overreach on the powers of the presidency," said Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the governor. Though the Clinton administration has "failed to instill trust" by Congress and the public on its Kosovo policy, Bush "does not believe this is the way to resolve the lack of presidential leadership," McClellan said.

The amendment's approval by the appropriations panel was widely read as a sign of growing congressional unhappiness with the Kosovo deployment. Lawmakers have increasingly complained that the participation of U.S. troops in the Kosovo mission is a no-win exercise. They have criticized European allies for failing to provide financial aid or personnel to help keep the peace in the region, despite their earlier pledges to do so.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a key GOP supporter of the withdrawal deadline, said Bush's opposition is likely to turn a significant number of Republicans against it. Many Democrats already oppose the measure, and a presidential veto was considered a possibility.

"If Gov. Bush objects, the amendment is dead," Stevens bluntly told reporters. "It will not pass."

The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has united lawmakers from several perspectives.

One core group believed the NATO airstrikes on Kosovo were a mistake from the start. Another group, including Warner, initially supported the bombing of Yugoslavia but have been turned against it by the lack of allied support and the seeming lack of a withdrawal strategy. Others, like Byrd, believe Congress should have a larger say, and the president a smaller one, in such deployment decisions.

Opponents of the deadline, including administration officials, have mounted a strong counterattack in recent days. They have contended that a withdrawal would encourage Albanian militants and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to wait out the U.S. departure and undercut American leadership in Europe.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a letter to colleagues the amendment would signal that the United States is "an unreliable ally" that would participate in peacekeeping operations "only if others take all the risks." And it would send a message to the U.S. armed forces, they wrote, "that we do not believe what we are doing is worthwhile."

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has denounced the measure, as has Gen. Wesley K. Clark, former commander of NATO forces in Europe, who appeared on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss the amendment with senators.

The Senate was set to debate the amendment Tuesday, but discussion was postponed by procedural wrangling over a Democratic gun control resolution. Senate leaders now hope to vote on the bill today.

Bush's declaration marks the second time he has set himself apart on a major pending issue from some members of his party in Congress.

In October, he distanced himself from GOP lawmakers by saying he did not agree with a House leadership plan to save $8 billion over the next year by deferring tax credit payments for low-income people.

"I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," Bush said then.

On Kosovo, Bush has accused the Clinton administration of mishandling the deployment by failing to formulate a plan that would lead to an eventual withdrawal. He has not argued that the United States should withdraw its troops immediately.

Bush favored the NATO-led bombing of Yugoslavia but has faulted Clinton for taking the option of ground troops off the table.

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