More than two dozen House Democrats, most of whom have previously supported the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, called upon President Clinton yesterday to halt airstrikes for 72 hours as an inducement to bring Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table.
Though Clinton abruptly dismissed the request, the suggestion underscored how Democrats remain anxious about the administration's Kosovo policy, an issue that is likely to resurface when Congress reconvenes after its one-week Memorial Day recess. Thirty Democrats spanning the ideological spectrum signed the letter to Clinton, 25 of whom voted in favor of airstrikes.
Rep. Sam Farr (Calif.), one of the Democrats calling for a bombing pause, emphasized that lawmakers had relied on the Pentagon for guidance in the early stages of the conflict but had become more attuned to public opinion.
"Now we're hearing the voice of the people," Farr said. "Our constituents are saying, `Why not try the peace card?' "
To a large extent, the request reflected nervousness among many Democrats over the possibility that Clinton might send ground troops to the region without exploring every other alternative. The president has not ruled out ground troops, though he says he does not plan to deploy them for now.
"If I have one constituent who comes back in a body bag, I want to be able to look their family in the eye and tell them we tried everything we could before their son or daughter gave their lives for our country," said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.).
Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.) said yesterday that Clinton may be able to convince Democrats ground troops are needed in the future, but he would have to make a concerted effort.
"A majority of the caucus is still uncomfortable with the concept of ground troops," Frost said. "A clear majority of the caucus wants to give the president every opportunity to be successful and let the bombing campaign continue. There is some sentiment for a bombing pause, but the majority wants to let the president, as commander in chief, handle that."
Clinton is vacationing in Florida, where White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told reporters that the bombing would continue. "There's been a small group of Democrats who have been consistent from the beginning of this conflict and have opposed military action," he said.
"I think it's certainly a legitimate position to take and to articulate," he added. "For our purposes, we believe that we need to continue, we need to continue to intensify until Milosevic changes his policy, allows the refugees back with security and autonomy."
Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich (D-Ill.), who met with Milosevic and helped obtain the release of three American soldiers earlier this month, said he and his colleagues support NATO's effort to end Milosevic's campaign. But he added, "We must have the courage to face reality and admit that our current strategy is failing to achieve our principal objective in the region: namely, ending the violence and returning the Kosovo Albanian refugees to their homes."
"It is time to open the door to a peace settlement in the Balkans -- and see if Milosevic is serious about withdrawing his troops from Kosovo. Let us challenge him to put up or shut up," Blagojevich added.