GOP Leaders Take Cautious Course on Kosovo
By Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin
In both houses of Congress, Republican leaders have cast themselves in the role of noncombatants in the domestic political combat over the war. Strongly critical of Clinton's policy but reluctant to look as though they are playing politics with war, the leaders have steered an extraordinarily cautious course -- focused largely, it appears, on saddling the president with the blame if the fighting turns sour.
Over the five weeks since NATO launched its air campaign against Yugoslavian forces in Kosovo, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other GOP leaders have been conspicuously restrained in their comments. They have been content to stay hands-off, prevent acrimonious debate on the floor and let Clinton take all the responsibility. Convinced that the war is sapping Clinton's popularity, some of them have even talked derisively about the "Clinton-Gore war."
In recent weeks, House GOP leaders have circulated two memos on the war, both of which suggested that the party is best off by staying publicly silent rather than taking strong stands against the war, sources said.
"Right now they want it all to fall on Clinton's shoulders," said Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "I think their gut instinct is that it's been blundered by the administration and they want him to bear responsibility for it."
Some Republicans regard this as "Clinton's war," said Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), who is working with a bipartisan group to build support for a negotiated settlement of the war. They "do not want to take ownership" of the conflict, he added.
"If the mission is successful, they [Republicans] cannot share in the glory . . . it will be Clinton's victory," said John J. Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who closely follows the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. "But what they can avoid is complicity in defeat."
But time may be running out on the leadership's reticent approach. Sooner or later, especially if NATO decides to commit ground troops, they will have to "violate their vow of silence . . . and come forward with a position," Wittmann said.
Lott signaled as much yesterday when he agreed to try to work out a compromise position on Kosovo with Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a chief sponsor of a proposal that would authorize "all necessary force" to win in the Balkans.
Just this past Sunday, Lott criticized the McCain resolution. If the proposal was defeated, it would show "chaos among the leaders in Washington," Lott said on ABC's "This Week" show. But if it was approved, it would give "carte blanche authority to the president," which Lott did not regard as any more acceptable.
So, for the time being, Lott said, "we should bide our time [and] hope that the bombing campaign will have the desired effect."
But yesterday, the majority leader said he hoped to schedule a debate and vote on a compromise later this week.
This was in contrast with a more partisan approach in the House, where Hastert rejected an overture last Thursday from Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to work out a bipartisan position. Hastert said his members did not want to sanction what Clinton was doing in Kosovo, sources said.
Gephardt expressed disappointment. "We're supposed to be leaders, not 535 secretaries of state, but willing to exert leadership to back some policy or not back some policy," he said.
Neither the House action today nor the Senate debate later in the week are likely to produce a final congressional word on Kosovo, however, especially if they result in putting off the most controversial decisions, as appears likely.
In addition to Campbell's two resolutions, aimed at carrying out requirements of the Constitution and the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution, the House is scheduled to vote on a proposal backed by the Republican leadership to bar funding for ground forces unless they are specifically authorized by Congress. A Democratic alternative based on an earlier Senate resolution will be offered, voicing support for the airstrikes.
Republican leaders toyed with the idea of trying to sidetrack Campbell's resolutions but concluded there was no way to stop a vote on them. "My best feeling is people ought to express their opinions," Hastert said yesterday in an interview.
The House International Relations Committee yesterday recommended that Campbell's resolutions be voted down when they come to the floor today. Many lawmakers said they expect the leadership's proposal to pass and Campbell's proposals to fail.
"People are very conflicted on this," said House GOP Conference Vice Chair Tillie Fowler (Fla.). They are particularly wary of doing anything to undermine U.S. troops in Kosovo, she said. "It's walking a very fine line between supporting them while trying to figure some way out of this," she said.
Nor are the administration's critics able to agree on an alternative policy, said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), a member of the House International Relations Committee. "People who are inclined to criticize the administration do so, but when asked what their alternative would be, there's silence," he said.
Pitney agreed that Republicans seem to be short on answers. "Whenever people are pressed for a solution, they hem and haw," he said. "When asked what they will do as an alternative, the answers are unsatisfying, such as intensifying the air campaign."
Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that support for NATO's bombing campaign remains steady. Two-thirds of those polled say they support the airstrikes, similar to early April findings. And 56 percent continue to say the United States "did the right thing" in getting involved in Yugoslavia, with 41 percent saying they believe U.S. involvement was a mistake.
Support also withstood recent news coverage of Serbian civilians killed by NATO bombs. In the poll, nearly eight in 10 respondents said the casualties are "unavoidable accidents of war" rather than a reflection of carelessness on NATO's part.
Clinton's overall approval rating stands at 60 percent, somewhat lower than in recent months (64 percent in March, 68 percent in February.) More specific evaluations of his handling of the military conflict have not changed since last measured at the start of the month: 56 percent approve of the job he is doing.
A total of 757 randomly selected adults nationwide were interviewed Sunday and Monday nights for the Post-ABC News survey. The margin of sampling error for results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.