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Congress is loath to pull purse strings

Democrats rule out forcing the Iraq issue. But past sessions have dictated war terms.

January 09, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As they prepare for weeks of oversight hearings on the war in Iraq, Democratic congressional leaders are ruling out funding cuts to force President Bush to withdraw American troops.

But such cuts would hardly be unprecedented.

Since the early 1970s, Congress has intervened in at least five foreign conflicts on three continents by dictating what U.S. forces could do or how long they stay.

In the most dramatic and politically provocative cases, including during the latter years of the Vietnam War, lawmakers used their power over the federal budget to dramatically restrict operations they opposed.

At other times, they passed laws that specified where American forces could operate in Central America in the 1980s and set a timeline for withdrawing American troops from Somalia in the 1990s.

In the late 1970s, Congress barred the CIA from participating in a civil war in Angola.


No appetite for showdown

"This isn't a monarchy. The president doesn't have the authority to do anything he wants," said former Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), who worked to limit President Reagan's support for the Nicaraguan Contras two decades ago. "When Congress wants to move, it clearly has the authority to force the president to cease and desist."

Democratic leaders have shown no appetite for such a showdown.

Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week sent Bush a letter urging him to begin pulling out troops, Pelosi reiterated Monday that Democrats would not force the issue by withholding funding.

There is a long history of congressional discomfort with challenging the commander in chief over how to conduct a war.

"Congress is very sensitive of being accused of not supporting the troops," said Louis Fisher, a constitutional law specialist at the Library of Congress who has written extensively about struggles between the White House and Congress over war powers.

Even when popular opinion turned against the Vietnam War, congressional war opponents took years to muster the majorities necessary to impose restrictions on the conflict.

But after President Nixon's controversial 1970 expansion of the war into Cambodia, the tide began to turn.

That year, Sens. John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.) and Frank Church (D-Idaho) overcame months of legislative opposition and attached an amendment to a foreign aid package that barred the use of U.S. troops in Cambodia.

The next year, Congress went further, approving a measure sponsored by Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) that required Nixon to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam.

Only after U.S. forces withdrew following the 1973 peace accords did Congress actually cut funding for assistance to South Vietnam. Two years later, after more congressional funding cuts, the country succumbed to a North Vietnamese invasion.

The fall of Saigon in 1975 fed accusations that Congress had undermined the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia.

Within a year, however, lawmakers on Capitol Hill imposed new limits on American intervention in another foreign conflict.

In 1976, Congress prohibited the CIA from conducting military operations in Angola, which was in the middle of a fierce civil war that pitted a Soviet-backed government against rebels supported by America's allies.

And less than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, Congress faced off against the White House over another controversial foreign war, this time in Central America.

In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration was aggressively trying to overthrow the Marxist government of Nicaragua and to prop up an American-backed government in El Salvador against communist-backed rebels.

"There was a great deal of unhappiness with the way the Reagan administration was characterizing the conflict," said Cynthia Arnson, a former congressional aide who now directs the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Amid reports of atrocities committed by America's allies, Democrats on Capitol Hill grew increasingly wary of U.S. involvement.

Then-Rep. Edward P. Boland (D-Mass.) led a congressional effort to prohibit the use of funding from the CIA or the Defense Department in support of the Contras in Nicaragua.

Lawmakers later went further, restricting U.S. forces from operating in Nicaragua and within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border in Honduras and Costa Rica. (At the time, U.S. troops were still advising the Contras.)

Those limits would become central to the Iran-Contra scandal in which Reagan administration officials sought to fund the Contras by using the proceeds of arms sales to Iran.

Congressional intervention in Southeast Asia and Central America proved politically controversial for Democrats.

And wariness over being accused of abandoning America's allies diminished congressional interest in limiting support for the government of El Salvador, Arnson said.


Continuing limits

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