The Senate yesterday escaped its latest entanglement with the 1973 War Powers Resolution over the U.S. tanker-escort operation in the Persian Gulf but agreed to make it easier to invoke war-powers constraints on military engagements in the future.
The compromise had the effect of shelving a resolution, filed by Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.), that triggered deadlines set by the war-powers law and could have resulted in termination of the escort operation on Dec. 20 if Congress took no action in the meantime.
It also set new rules for handling future war-powers disputes under which the Senate, by majority vote, would decide whether a resolution similar to the one filed by Adams would trigger the law and its deadlines. Under existing rules, such a move can be blocked by a filibuster, which can be broken only by 60 votes required to impose cloture on debate.
Filibusters were used earlier this year to thwart efforts to impose war-powers limits on the gulf operation and require congressional approval for long-term continuation of it.
The two-step compromise was carefully arranged behind the scenes and unfolded on the Senate floor in kind of procedural minuet in which there were no roll calls, no arguments and no references to just how close the Senate had inadvertently come to pulling the plug on the tanker-escort operation.
Adams' resolution had been intended to authorize continuation of the operation for six months while following the letter of the 1973 law, which requires congressional authorization for deployment of U.S. troops for more than 60 days when they are engaged in hostilities or face imminent risk of hostilities.
Many senators agreed that the Persian Gulf fits this description but were wary of invoking the law because its deadlines require action by Congress, which could be both difficult and politically risky.
But Adams followed a procedure that had been used under similar circumstances during a 1983 debate over U.S. military involvement in Lebanon, and the law's deadlines were automatically triggered.
This came as a surprise to the Senate, which thought it had buried Adams' resolution in committee and put off the issue until next year. It found out otherwise Monday when, under automatic enforcing mechanisms of the war-powers law, Adams' resolution popped up on the Senate calendar as its first order of business after the Thanksgiving recess.
Without yesterday's action, or something like it, the 60-day review period in the law would have run out Dec. 20 unless Adams' resolution or a similar authorization for continued deployment had been approved by then.