WASHINGTON -- Even as White House officials struggle to rally allied support for interceding in Bosnia, they are under increasing pressure on Capitol Hill to get congressional approval before U.S. military force is used in the former Yugoslavia.
So far, White House officials are playing it coy regarding a no-nonsense letter signed by 91 members of Congress urging President Clinton to seek congressional approval before committing U.S. military personnel in any offensive action in the Balkans.
"We don't know what we want to do [regarding the letter] because we don't know what we want to do" regarding Bosnia, one White House official quipped yesterday.
The letter was drafted by Rep. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, before Bosnian Serbs signed a peace treaty over the weekend and attention here shifted from possible U.S. air strikes to the deployment of a large peacekeeping force.
Whether U.S. military forces drop bombs or keep the peace, a growing chorus of voices on Capitol Hill are pressing for a congressional vote.
Those demands represent the latest chapter in a historic tug-of-war over which branch of government has the power to deploy U.S. soldiers.
"We are writing to express our concern that any decision to involve U.S. military personnel in offensive military action in the Balkans, either independently or in concert with other members of the international community, must first receive the affirmative approval of Congress as required by Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution," Mr. Durbin's letter stated.
That clause grants Congress the power "to declare war."
Sounds simple, but it isn't. Though the United States has been in two major wars and several minor actions since the end of World War II, none of those conflicts has involved a formal declaration of war.
It was 20 years ago, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was winding down and Congress was engaging in self-recrimination about delegating so much of its war-making powers to the White House, that the War Powers Act was passed.
It requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours when U.S. troops are engaged in "hostilities" -- or when such hostilities are "imminent."
Congress then has 60 days to approve the deployment of the troops. If that doesn't happen, the president must bring the troops home.
The trouble with the law is that its requirements are so loose that it can be meaningless.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, for instance, is scheduled to debate the desirability of having U.S. Marines in Somalia today -- 24 hours after Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston officially turned over the command there to the United Nations.
Two years ago, 54 members of Congress, led by Ronald V. Dellums, a liberal Democrat from California who now chairs the House Armed Services Committee, went to court to try to block President George Bush from waging war in the Persian Gulf.
They found a somewhat sympathetic ear in U.S. District Court Judge Harold H. Greene, who agreed with Mr. Dellums' assertion that "Every ordinary person understands that when an American army of nearly 400,000 soldiers launches an attack against an Iraqi army of over 1 million soldiers to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait, the result will constitute war."
The Bush administration averted a constitutional crisis by seeking a congressional resolution allowing the war in the Gulf.
But the White House has not yet decided if it would seek a similar resolution before launching air strikes in Bosnia.
One White House official said the administration doesn't know how events will play out regarding the peace talks and the negotiations with America's European allies.
Members of Congress agree on almost nothing about potential U.S. involvement in Bosnia except that it would be wise for Mr. Clinton to win their approval first. The reasons they cite are political as much as legal.
"He's got to come to the Congress because there is not a large consensus in this country for intervention," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. ". . . The debate will galvanize support in the Congress and in the country."
A CNN-Time magazine poll released Saturday found that 52 percent felt the United States has done enough to stop the war, while only 36 percent said Washington should do more. The poll also showed that 52 percent opposed U.S. air strikes against Serbian forces while 36 percent favored them.
Nevertheless, Mr. Hoyer said he believes the president can win speedy approval for the intervention if the mission is clearly limited and its objectives are sharply defined.
Although he argues passionately that U.S. military intervention in Bosnia is long overdue, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, also believes the president has to have congressional approval "if he puts American forces on the ground."
The Congress is wildly divided on Bosnia, however, and along non-traditional lines that are not partisan and which defy easy labeling.
"Strange bedfellows," observed Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former Vietnam prisoner of war, who like other veterans is among the most reluctant to endorse military action. He said he was very skeptical about the prospects for success of air strikes unless ground forces are involved, and he opposes the use of American troops.
All kinds of historic analogies are being offered on Capitol Hill and at the White House these days. Some compare Bosnia to World War II, others to Vietnam and still others to the Persian Gulf War.
But the intervention Mr. Durbin can't get out of his mind is Lebanon, where "peacekeeping" forces of U.S. Marines were sent in 1983 -- until 241 of them were killed while sleeping in their barracks.
One of them was Lt. William Scott Sommerhoff of Mr. Durbin's hometown of Springfield, Ill.
Mr. Durbin went back for the funeral, and on the way, mulled what might have been if Congress had been more assertive about re-claiming its historic constitutional role.
"As I sat in that church, not only was I sad, but I was frustrated and mad that I had no voice in the decision to send him over there."