WASHINGTON -- The Senate is preparing today to put its own stamp on President Clinton's Somalia policy, probably by narrowing the mission of U.S. forces there and possibly accelerating Mr. Clinton's timetable for a March 31 withdrawal.
Democratic and Republican leaders spent much of the long Columbus Day weekend working with administration officials to head off a direct confrontation over Somalia. Those efforts were complicated yesterday by the latest crisis in Haiti, where an angry crowd forced the White House to suspend plans to send 600 military advisers and technicians to assist in a restoration of democracy.
The situation in Haiti seemed certain to fuel congressional demands for more control over how U.S. troops are used abroad.
Mr. Clinton attempted to moderate congressional criticism about his Somalia policy with a speech to the nation last Thursday. He bought himself some time for passions to cool but still confronts the lawmakers' need to show constituents that they are taking steps to curtail a foreign venture many believe has gone awry.
Congressional leaders were fashioning a compromise that would narrow the Somalia mission to protecting U.S. troops there and ensuring the safe delivery of food and supplies to civilians.
Mr. Clinton said in his speech that U.S. troops also were in Somalia to "keep pressure" on the warring factions that have been attacking relief workers and U.N. forces, and to "help make it possible for the Somali people . . . to reach agreement among themselves so that they can solve their problems and survive when we leave."
But Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services committee and is a key player in the compromise talks, believes these "pressure" tactics are dangerously broad and vague.
"I think we ought to have a very narrow mission that allows us to have a orderly withdrawal in a matter of weeks, not a matter of lot and lots of months," he said Sunday.
The stiffest challenge to the president is expected to come from Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the formidable West Virginia Democrat who has made clear he isn't satisfied with Mr. Clinton's promise to have the U.S. troops withdraw by March 31.
Mr. Byrd may offer an amendment today calling for a cutoff of funds to the mission after Jan. 1.
A rebel Republican faction led by Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona is eagerly supporting Mr. Byrd.
To counter the Byrd amendment, the leadership compromise may call for Mr. Clinton to bring the U.S. troops home as early as TC possible but at the same time provide the president with some flexibility to prolong the final stages of a pullout if the situation calls for it.
"It seems to me we ought to support the commander-in-chief and give him the flexibility he needs," Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, another key figure in the compromise talks, said in a television interview yesterday. He said that he is supporting an approach that would not allow the troops to stay beyond March 31 unless additional time is authorized by Congress.
Some senators believe that flexibility might dissuade Somalian warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid from simply waiting until the Americans leave before resuming his fight for control of the country, plunging the East African nation back into chaos.
Senators are likely to be influenced by what they heard from their constituents during the weekend. The initial public outrage after 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in an firefight with Mr. Aidid's forces Oct. 3 may have cooled.
Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who like many of her colleagues spent yesterday in town meetings discussing health care, didn't exactly get an earful on Somalia during a swing around the Baltimore Beltway.
But those who discussed it with her had a clear message: Get out.
Constituents are saying that "we ought ought to move out as quickly as we can after we rescue Durant," the Baltimore Democrat said, referring to Army pilot Michael Durant, who was taken prisoner during the Oct. 3 clash.
Ms. Mikulski said she would not make a decision on how she will vote on the issue until she sees exactly what amendments are offered.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican representing Western Maryland, said he has been hearing from constituents who "are almost unanimous" in saying they don't understand why the United States is still in Somalia and wonder why troops weren't pulled when "the humanitarian mission ended two or three months ago."