The Clinton administration told a dubious Congress Wednesday it had a legal right to keep thousands of American soldiers on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia without a pullout deadline and asked for nearly $2.5 billion to finance the operation through September 1999.
Within hours, the House voted 225-193 against a hotly fought resolution that would have forced President Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops from Bosnia or get permission from Congress to leave them there.
Defense Secretary William Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended the peacekeeping operation as constitutional in testimony before the House National Security Committee.
Cohen said the troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, overseeing a 1995 settlement arranged by the United States to end a 3-1/2-year ethnic war, were unlikely to face hostile fire.
The defense secretary acknowledged it would have been politically wise to urge Congress to approve a resolution supporting the U.S. military involvement in the former Yugoslavia. But the troops in Bosnia, which he said would be reduced from 8,500 to 6,900, were not “in harm’s way.”
Later, the House rejected a measure by Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., designed to test the constitutionality of the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires presidents to seek congressional approval when sending U.S. forces into combat. The law was adopted by Congress as America’s bloody combat role in Vietnam was winding down, but presidents of both parties since have found ways to sidestep it.
Campbell said it was time to get a clear ruling on the law. “We decide whether we should put troops in force overseas,” he said.
But leaders of both parties suggested it would send the wrong signals to the rest of the world and to U.S. troops in Bosnia.
“I urge our colleagues not to undermine … the morale of our young men and women who served in Bosnia,” said Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., chairman of the House International Relations Committee, which earlier this month rejected the same resolution.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., said he supported the War Powers resolution. “I think we’re making progress (in Bosnia) but there’s a tremendous cost attached to it,” Nethercutt said. He believes American troops should stay until September, when elections are scheduled. After that “we need to have a national discussion whether we want to be there for a generation. It’s a debate the country ought to have.”
Overall, Congress has generally been supportive - if grudgingly - of the administration’s plans to keep U.S. forces in Bosnia beyond the earlier June deadline.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday voted 16-2, in fact, for an emergency bill to provide funds for that purpose, as well as for supporting the elevated U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf.