May 15, 2000Clinton facing showdown on Kosovo
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Defense Secretary William Cohen threatened a veto today of bipartisan legislation that would require congressional approval to keep U.S. troops in Kosovo. Both sides braced for a showdown over the issue.
With the Senate expected to vote as early as Tuesday on the provision, Cohen sent a letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, saying the language is "counterproductive to peace in Kosovo and will seriously jeopardize the relationship between the U.S. and our NATO allies."
The provision is included in a routine, $8.6 billion measure for military construction that carries an additional $4.7 billion emergency package for peacekeeping in Kosovo, anti-drug activities in Colombia and elsewhere, and other defense programs. The administration wants the bill passed quickly so the money can get to the military.
Even so, Cohen wrote, "I believe that the Kosovo provision, as presently written, will force me to recommend that the president veto this legislation."
The disputed language would require the Americans' removal from the breakaway Yugoslav province beginning July 1, 2001, unless Congress votes to keep them there.
And there will be a renewed effort by a group of Democrats and Republicans in the House to require the troops' withdrawal unless Clinton certifies that Europeans are delivering promised aid for rebuilding the violence-shattered Balkan enclave. The deadline would be next April 1.
Administration officials oppose both provisions, even though final decisions would not have to be made until after the next president takes office. But in the face of widespread congressional skepticism about U.S. efforts in Kosovo, White House prospects for stopping some form of restrictions on American forces there are unclear.
The administration's best hope may be rallying enough votes -- more than one-third the members voting in either chamber -- to signal that a Clinton veto would be sustained. That ultimately could lead to watered-down language, either before or after an actual veto.
"There's going to be a strong debate on it," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., a co-author of the Senate language. "Anytime you have that much interest in a debate, you have to wait and see" about the outcome.
Congressional opposition to the 5,900 U.S. troops in the NATO-led, 37,000-strong Kosovo peacekeeping force is a confluence of several factors. Some like Warner want the Europeans to pick up more of the responsibility and cost of the aftermath of NATO's 78-day air war against the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Others like cosponsoring Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., believe that for constitutional reasons, Congress should not let a president unilaterally dispatch U.S. troops abroad. Still others think the venture in Kosovo was ill-advised from the start and could become an open-ended risk of American lives in a region known for its intractable and violent ethnic disputes.
But some members of both parties are supporting Clinton. They argue that setting a withdrawal date would be a foreign policy failure that would only encourage Milosevic to postpone further provocations until the Americans have left.
"Passage would send a very misguided signal to all parties in the area that they can't count on our staying power," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a leading GOP voice on foreign affairs, said in an interview.
Others opposing the withdrawal language include Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., the one-time GOP presidential hopeful; Carl Levin, D-Mich., top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee; and Joseph Biden, D-Del., senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Underlining the administration's difficult path ahead, the Byrd-Warner language was approved last week by the Senate Appropriations Committee by a one-sided 23-3. Only three liberal Democrats opposed the provision, which would also require Clinton to develop a plan for having the Europeans supply all ground combat-troop peacekeepers by July 1, 2001.
In hopes of creating momentum against it, Democrats supporting Clinton say Defense Secretary William Cohen; Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top officials may journey to the Capitol on Tuesday to meet with senators. That is the earliest day votes on the issue may occur.
Already, senators supporting Clinton are circulating a letter by Gen. Wesley Clark, the former top NATO commander in Europe, saying an American withdrawal "could give Mr. Milosevic the victory he could not achieve on the battlefield."
In March, the House voted 219-200 to kill a provision by Reps. John Kasich, R-Ohio, Barney Frank, D-Mass., and others that would have required a U.S. departure from Kosovo beginning this June 1 unless Clinton certified that Europeans are delivering on promised hundreds of millions of dollars.
They will try again this week, aides say, with changes designed to attract additional votes. The deadline date will be pushed back to next April 1, and Clinton would be allowed to temporarily waive the deadline by postponing it by up to 180 days.