Senate leaders, frustrated by repeated stalemates over use of the 1973 War Powers Resolution to contain U.S. involvement in explosive conflicts such as the Persian Gulf war, are considering a high-level bipartisan commission to draft changes in the law.
It would be patterned after the independent panel that spearheaded overhaul of Social Security financing four years ago.
An independent commission to rework the law was proposed last week by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and endorsed in general terms by committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) as well as Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
The idea would be to remove the war powers issue from the dispute over Persian Gulf policy and turn to respected outside experts to deal with complicated constitutional and policy questions that have kept Congress and the White House in conflict over the law since its enactment.
Congress and the White House have gone out of their way to avoid invoking the resolution over the past 14 years and a "short-term Band-Aid fix is not enough," Warner said.
The Vietnam-era war powers law had "good intentions" but is "not a workable piece of legislation" for conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war in the Persian Gulf, Nunn said.
However, the move is expected to encounter resistance from lawmakers who contend that the law will work if Congress just musters the political courage to apply it. Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), who has been pushing to apply the law to the U.S. tanker-escort operation in the gulf, said Congress can make any necessary changes. "We don't need any commission. We can just go out there and do it," he said, pointing to the Senate floor.
Warner said yesterday that he expects Senate leaders will meet over the next week to 10 days to work out details of an independent commission. He said White House officials have also "expressed interest" in the idea.
The War Powers Resolution was passed over President Richard M. Nixon's veto in the waning days of the Vietnam war to assure Congress some control over commitment of U.S. forces in future hostilities.
It requires the president to consult with Congress before introducing U.S. forces into hostilities or "imminent" danger of hostilities and to report any such deployment within 48 hours. Troops would have to be withdrawn in 60 to 90 days unless Congress declares war or specifically authorizes their continued deployment.
But every president dating back to Nixon has regarded the law as an intrusion on the president's powers as commander-in-chief and has balked at triggering provisions requiring congressional approval for continuation of any military operation.
Congress has invoked the law only once. It triggered the law in 1983 in connection with the deployment of U.S. Marines in Lebanon but, in doing so, it also authorized extension of the operation for 18 months. A month after the congressional authorization, 241 U.S. military personnel were killed when an explosive-laden truck plowed into the Marine barracks in Beirut. Within a few more months, U.S. forces were withdrawn from Lebanon.
In the controversy over U.S. reflagging and escorting of Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf, President Reagan has refused to invoke the law, and neither house has passed legislation to do so.
A majority of the Senate has voted for separate legislation to require congressional approval for continuation of the operation beyond 90 days from enactment, but could not muster the 60 votes necessary to break a Republican filibuster. A group of House members has filed suit to force the president to invoke the law.
Some lawmakers have concerns over the law's constitutionality. Others contend it is overly rigid, imposing a formula designed for the Vietnam war on newer, more fluid kinds of conflicts. There is also a reluctance in Congress to accept the political consequences of standing in the way of the president once troops are committed to battle.
During the Persian Gulf debate, concerns were raised that a congressional failure to act under the war powers provisions could terminate all U.S. military operations in the gulf, not just the escort operation.