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  •   Senate Shelves McCain Proposal on Kosovo

    By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, May 5, 1999; Page A27

    The Senate voted with White House backing yesterday to scuttle a proposal sanctioning a wider war over Kosovo, prompting an angry Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to charge that President Clinton is "prepared to lose a war" to avoid tough choices.

    The 78 to 22 vote to shelve a proposal by McCain to authorize "all necessary force," including ground troops, followed an eight-hour debate that underscored senators' deep divisions over the war. While most said McCain's proposal was premature and overly broad, they could not agree on whether to escalate the war, continue to rely on airstrikes or pursue a negotiated settlement.

    The vote to "table," or set aside, the McCain proposal without voting on its merits also demonstrated bipartisan resolve on the part of Senate leaders to avoid sending another wavering signal just a week after the House approved conflicting positions on the war.

    While White House spokesman Joe Lockhart hailed the Senate vote as an affirmation of support for the air campaign, the debate revealed strong misgivings about Clinton's conduct of the war. "Individual feelings about our commander in chief seem to be influencing votes that have consequences that are so much more important than any commander in chief," said Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.).

    Yesterday's vote cut across partisan and ideological lines, with nine Republicans and 13 Democrats supporting McCain's proposal and 46 Republicans and 32 Democrats voting to lay it aside. Some of those who voted against it said they could support it later. Among Washington area senators, only Robb voted with McCain.

    After the vote, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he thought Clinton would have a "good chance" of winning Senate approval for sending ground forces to Kosovo if he asked for authorization.

    Lott's comment served both to blunt any signal of irresolution from the vote and to emphasize Clinton's responsibility for the conduct of the war, making it clear that the decision on ground troops must come from Clinton, not Congress.

    It was Clinton's opposition to McCain's proposal – and active lobbying against it by Cabinet members – that enraged the Arizonan, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination and has gained ground in New Hampshire's critical early primary, apparently because of his high profile on Kosovo, according to polls.

    "The president of the United States is prepared to lose a war rather than do the hard work, the politically risky work, of fighting it as the leader of the greatest nation on Earth should fight when our interests and values are imperiled," said McCain.

    McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has often backed Clinton's authority on military matters, while criticizing his execution of it. His blistering remarks were probably the strongest criticism of Clinton's conduct of the war that have been heard so far in the Senate.

    McCain said he pushed for his proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, out of what he described as the "forlorn hope that the president would take courage from it" and adopt a tougher strategy.

    "Shame on the president if he persists in abdicating his responsibilities," McCain concluded. "But shame on us if we let him."

    Nor did Lott escape his ire, although McCain did not mention his party leader by name. Referring to the "give peace a chance" refrain that Lott had picked up from Jesse L. Jackson, McCain said "the price of peace" for Kosovo's Albanians is too high if it means "we abandon them to the cruelty of their oppressors."

    Later, Lott distanced himself from McCain's comments on Clinton, saying he did not "feel a need or a desire to second-guess the president in that way." Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said McCain's remarks were "unfair and inaccurate."

    In response to McCain's arguments for an escalation of the war, Lott noted that the Senate approved the air campaign before it started and that neither Clinton nor NATO currently wants a ground war. McCain's language, he added, was too broad. "This is the wrong language; it's the wrong time," he said.

    Meanwhile, in a survey of Republican voters by New Hampshire's WMUR television station, McCain's support doubled to 14 percent, in large measure because of his role on Kosovo, according to Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "He is viewed as statesmanlike on foreign policy," Smith said, noting that McCain has been a constant presence in the New Hampshire media over the past month.

    Another survey, by Franklin Pierce College, showed McCain gaining ground, although poll coordinator Robin Marra said the growth may also be due to "the genuine absence of Elizabeth Dole in the state over the last 10 weeks."

    Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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