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Congressional Views of Kosovo

March 23, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate’s first order of business this morning was debate on legislation that could have led to prohibiting US participation in NATO air strikes against Serbian targets in Yugoslavia. The legislation was written by New Hampshire Republican Bob Smith, a strong opponent of US military involvement. It would have blocked funding for the mission until and unless President Clinton first got the approval of the Congress.

SEN. BOB SMITH, (R) New Hampshire: It is entirely constitutional entirely constitutional for the Congress to withhold funds from any activity of the federal government. It’s a blunt instrument, there’s no question about that, and one that we should use sparingly, but it is sometimes the only instrument that we have here in Congress. It is why the administration must seek consensus, or at least some majority in support of military hostilities.

KWAME HOLMAN: Smith’s resolution attracted the support of many Senate conservatives, including Idaho Republican Larry Craig.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG, (R) Idaho: We’re talking about US military activity over and on the soil of Serbia, an independent autonomous nation. That nation is at war at this moment. It is a civil strife, over the province of Kosovo, which would be like the State of Idaho within the United States of America. We would not call that a world interest, if Idahoans were fighting the rest of the United States for its independence, and I think that the country would react violently if Great Britain or NATO or Russia for that matter sided with Idahoans against the United States if we were attempting to break loose from the United States of America. Should we attack Turkey to protect the Kurds, China to protect Tibet, or Taiwan, India to protect the Muslims in Kashmir?

KWAME HOLMAN: Attendance in the Senate chamber was light as Craig spoke. Some 22 Senators, and an equal number of members of the House of Representatives had gone off to the White House at the President’s invitation. The delegation knew the President would urge them to oppose Senator Smith’s resolution, but many also wanted to hear the President make a stronger case for using US air power in the Balkans. On Capitol Hill, Senator Craig advised the President to make that case before the American people as well.

SEN. LARRY CRAIG: Some of our leadership are at the White House as I speak, and they are listening to a President who is trying to convince them not to have the vote today here in the United States Senate. Quite the opposite should be happening. The President should be saying let us debate this issue, let us vote this issue, and more importantly, I will go to the American people and sell to them why America ought to be involved.

KWAME HOLMAN: Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd agreed the President should explain the need for military action to the American people, but he said he for one already was convinced.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD, (D) Connecticut: As we debate these issues, a massive force of 40,000 Serb soldiers and paramilitary police are moving slowly, deliberately and methodically from village to village to village, taking lives, burning homes, and forcing tens of thousands of innocent civilians fleeing for their lives without food or shelter. Mr. President, can anyone doubt in the face of such continuing atrocities that the American people would oppose participation by the United States in NATO-authorized air strikes? It is at times like these, Mr. President, that we are forced to re-examine the founding premises of this great nation; when faced with massive and wholesale human rights abuses, we must bow to our conscious and to our Founding Fathers’ recognition of the right of all people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and act to preserve those rights whenever possible. Kosovo, Mr. President, is just such a case.

KWAME HOLMAN: The meeting at the White House lasted more than an hour. Afterward, every member who spoke to the waiting media said if the President okayed air strikes against Serbian targets in Yugoslavia, majorities from both Houses of Congress and from both parties would support him.

SEN. JOHN WARNER, Chairman, Armed Services Committee: I put the explicit question to the President: Mr. President, are you now asking the Congress for their support? And his answer was one word, “yes.”

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, (D) Delaware: Arguably from the constitutional standpoint he doesn’t need it, but I think it’s constitutionally wise, I think it’s politically necessary.

SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON, (R) Texas: While many people disagree with the President’s policy, I would not want Mr. Milosevic to get the impression that the troops would not have the full support and that the President wouldn’t have the support he needs if we have troops in harm’s way.

REPORTER: Does the President say how the end game would work, if the bombing doesn’t work?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL, (R) Kentucky: I don’t think anybody knows for sure what the end game will be, but I think clearly this is in Europe, this is not somewhere else in the world. We have a great deal of interest in the stability of NATO and keeping our word, and I’m going to support what the President –

REPORTER: What was said about the administration to change your mind?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Actually, I’m not sure I have changed my mind. I’m one of the few members of my party who think that holding NATO together, standing up to this thug, Milosevic, and giving the Kosovars a fair chance is the right thing to do, and I’m going to support the President.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon on a procedural vote, the Senate set aside Smith’s amendment requiring congressional approval to launch US air strikes against Serbia. Bipartisan discussions later resulted in the drafting of a new resolution supporting the air strikes.