Clinton Gains Support on Hill For Kosovo Campaign
Key members change course, rallying behind airstrikes, although many continue to criticize cost and limitations of NATO action
By Miles A. Pomper, CQ Staff Writer
April 19, 1999
With public opinion polls showing strong support for the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia, lawmakers are rallying to President Clinton's side even as they publicly fret about the soaring cost of the operation and its effect on the military.
"Congress is behind the president," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Connie Mack of Florida. "There are very few people who are in favor of simply pulling out."
Clinton bolstered support by meeting twice with lawmakers the week of April 12 and by sending his national security team to Capitol Hill for both public and private briefings.
The White House meetings Clinton held with lawmakers on April 12 and 13 seemed to sway some key members who had only a few weeks before opposed the mission.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., emerged from the April 12 meeting with Clinton saying he now supported the NATO mission, despite having voted March 23 against legislation (SCONRES21) backing the air campaign. (CQ Weekly, p. 763)
Similarly, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who had been one of the most strident foes of the Kosovo operation, struck a different tone after emerging from the White House on April 13.
"I am feeling more comfortable with the mission after the briefing the president gave," DeLay said. "The military is more in charge than before."
Members were also reassured by assertions from Clinton, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the air campaign was beginning to take its toll on the Serbian military.
"The air war is working," declared Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Clinton repeated those claims during several public appearances. "We've struck at Serbia's machinery of repression, at the infrastructure that supports it," he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 15.
Hoping to inflict even more damage, Clinton ordered 300 additional warplanes to the region, as requested by NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark. Along with reinforcements from other NATO members, that will bring the total number of fighters and bombers to more than 1,000.
Clark also requested a doubling of the number of Apache attack helicopters being sent to Albania for use in the region from 24 to 48, accompanied by about 4,000 U.S. soldiers.
And the Pentagon is preparing to ask Clinton for authority to activate as many as 33,000 reserves in support of the Kosovo conflict. The president is likely to approve that request, government officials said on April 16.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on April 15, Cohen said the aim of the attacks was either to force Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic into a peace deal or to wear his forces down until they could be overrun by the rebellious Kosovo Liberation Army.
"The KLA has not been destroyed," Cohen said. "They've gone to the hills, where they'll reinforce themselves. They will come back stronger, and Milosevic will find himself having to confront a guerrilla force that over a period of time will, in fact, defeat his army."
The administration, however, continues to resist a proposal by Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., to provide arms to the rebels, largely because of opposition from NATO allies and Russia.
"The KLA doesn't qualify as any kind of choirboy circle," Cohen said. "There are dangerous people in the KLA."
Some critics, led by John McCain of Arizona, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a declared Republican presidential candidate, said that neither proposal went far enough.
In an April 13 speech to the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, McCain said the Clinton administration should "mobilize infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war in Kosovo."
McCain criticized Clinton for repeatedly declaring that he did not intend to use ground forces against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav military, and he invoked his experience as a pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
"I am not haunted by memories of Vietnam," McCain said. "But I must admit I never thought we would again witness in my lifetime the specter of politicians picking targets and ruling out offensive measures in the absurd hope that the enemy would respond to our restraint by yielding to our demands."
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., sarcastically observed at the Armed Services hearing: "We will fight evil, but we will do it from above 15,000 feet."
Clinton was criticized by some lawmakers who oppose the Kosovo mission and insist that Congress needs to debate the issue.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the United States was shortchanging more vital national security interests with its involvement in Kosovo.
"We don't have the capacity to support a major effort like this," Inhofe said in an interview. "They [the military forces] have lost a sense of mission, as we are increasingly having to go into conflicts where they don't have any strategic interest."
Inhofe blamed his colleagues for following public opinion polls, which now show about two-thirds of Americans backing the airstrikes, despite a rising toll of civilian casualties.
Some lawmakers still believe that Congress, and particularly the House, needs a definitive vote on the NATO operation.
"For this war to be prosecuted further, constitutionality demands Congress take a definitive stand, and morality requires judgments be based on more than good intentions," Rep. Jim Leach, a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, wrote in the April 15 Washington Post.
Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif., introduced two pieces of legislation April 12 invoking the 1973 War Powers Act (PL 93-148), which requires congressional authorization within a limited period of time if U.S. forces are to be sent into combat overseas. One resolution (HCONRES82) would direct the president to withdraw troops, while another (HJRES44) would declare war on Yugoslavia.
The first resolution is privileged under House rules and is likely to be taken up by the International Relations Committee the week of April 19.
Lawmakers also approved two measures April 15 designed to demonstrate their support for U.S. troops involved in the air campaign.
Both the House and Senate passed legislation (HR1376) giving U.S. troops taking part in the operation an additional six months to file their tax forms and a tax exemption for their combat pay. The House vote was 424-0, while the Senate approved the measure 95-0. Clinton had already granted the breaks by executive order April 13. (House vote 91, p. 920; Senate vote 87, p. 914)
The House also unanimously approved a resolution (HCONRES83) demanding the release of three Americans captured earlier this month by Serb forces.
Hastert and Lott, however, have shown little eagerness to force more floor votes on the NATO operation -- unless Clinton proposes introducing ground troops.
Instead, they dispatched a group of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., and House and Senate appropriators April 16 to investigate the situation in the region and talk to NATO officials in Brussels, Belgium.
When the delegation returns, debate on Kosovo is likely to focus on a supplemental fiscal 1999 spending bill that will be used to finance the operation. (Supplemental, p. 883)
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee on April 15 that the operation should be classified as "emergency spending" that does not have to be offset by other cuts, so that it is not restricted by budget caps.
David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, backed her request, saying that "if we had fought World War II by having accountants run the operation instead of political leaders and military strategists, the Nazi flag would be flying over our country."
However, House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., said that if the administration sought emergency spending, it should call for making up not only the direct costs to the Pentagon of the military mission but the broader effect on the military's capabilities. "We need to do more than replace bombs and missiles, because we are wearing out troops and wearing out equipment."
Senate Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Bob Kerrey of Nebraska said in an interview that the operation also is hampering intelligence collection in other areas.
"The collection, analysis and dissemination requirements mean that we are not collecting as much for non-NATO targets," particularly Iraq and North Korea, Kerrey said. "Our blanket's been pulled off the targets that are vitally important to the nation's interests."
By week's end, the administration appeared to have settled on a supplemental budget request of $6 billion, including money to help neighboring countries feed, house and transport refugees.