WASHINGTON -- Key congressional Republicans are threatening to cut back President Clinton's authority to spend money overseas, opening a new battle over his power to conduct foreign policy.
The Republicans are taking aim at the president's emergency spending powers, which Mr. Clinton has repeatedly employed to support controversial actions without the approval of Congress, including the occupation of Haiti and the nuclear agreement with North Korea.
Their intent, they said, is to force Mr. Clinton to consult with Congress, not cripple his ability to respond effectively to genuine crises.
Since taking office in January 1993, Mr. Clinton has used emergency powers to spend more than $250 million overseas. About $76 million of that was in the Haiti operation, for such purposes as training a civilian police force, according to figures compiled by Congress.
White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry defended the president's spending powers, saying: "The president, as commander in chief, must have the flexibility to act when necessary to protect the national interest."
Measured against the total federal budget, the amounts are small. But loss of this presidential power "could do real harm to his ability to conduct foreign policy," said Arnold Kanter, a senior State Department official in the Bush administration.
"A president needs the ability to quickly respond to events and meet contingencies," Mr. Kanter said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, is preparing legislation to place tight restrictions on the president's spending power, according to congressional aides.
Mr. Helms has the tacit backing of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who has warned Mr. Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher against excessive use of emergency spending power, known as waivers. There is also support from key members of the House -- at least for using a debate on restrictive legislation as a clear warning to the president.
The Clinton administration acknowledges having extensively used emergency waivers, which allow it to spend money without advance approval from Congress or consulting the leadership. But officials defend the actions as necessary either because of time pressure or to get around prohibitions from another era.
Republican opponents of the Haiti operation counter that the administration simply wanted to avoid asking for a congressional vote because there was uncertainty about the outcome.
"This administration is playing an outrageous shell game to hide what it's costing to prop up the government of Haiti," charges Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who serves on the panel that must approve foreign aid. He has proposed requiring the administration to disclose all past and anticipated costs of operations in Haiti.
Use of another waiver to provide oil for North Korea as part of the nuclear agreement reached last fall triggered more congressional protest. And in other cases, Republicans say, the administration used waivers simply because it had failed to plan ahead.
One of the laws at issue is among the most powerful financing devices available to the president. Known as Section 614, it allows him to him tap foreign aid money for actions he deems "important" to American security interests. Another law in the dispute lets the president spend up to $50 million a year for "any unanticipated contingencies."
The defense budget offers other mechanisms, including one allowing the Pentagon to use operations and maintenance money for "any emergency or extraordinary expense which cannot be anticipated or classified." This authority bought the oil for North Korea.
Mr. Clinton has used Section 614 nine times in two years, though not all of those occasions have been controversial.
President Bush, in four years, used that section eight times; President Reagan, in eight years, used it 21 times. The money has gone to the United Nations operation in Somalia; aid to Jordan, Israel and South Africa; and enforcement of sanctions against Serbia.
"The ground rules for 614 have always been, 'Use it judiciously or you will risk losing this authority,' " said Larry Q. Nowels, a foreign affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service.
Mr. Helms' legislation would restrict the president's use of this power to cases in which "vital" national security interests are at stake, and would require congressional consultation beforehand.