The Senate scuttled a proposal to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops in Kosovo in the face of aggressive administration lobbying and a rebuke from Republican Gov. George W. Bush for trying to "tie the president's hand" on foreign policy.
By a 53-47 vote Thursday, the Senate killed an amendment to a military construction spending bill that would have ended the deployment of U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo by July 1, 2001, unless the president obtained congressional authorization to extend their stay. Thirty-eight Democrats joined with 15 Republicans to defeat the amendment, which had been added in committee by Sens. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and John Warner, R-Va..
Florida's senators, Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Connie Mack, both voted to kill the amendment.
As a measure of the importance of the issue, Vice President Gore took time off from his campaign to preside over the Senate in case his vote was needed to break a tie. Bush warned earlier this week that lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill had "overreached" by attempting to dictate foreign policy matters.
The vote was a major victory for President Clinton at a time when he faces an array of foreign policy challenges on Capitol Hill. Next week, the House will take up an administration proposal to grant permanent normal trading status to China, while the president also faces struggles over his aid package for Colombia and economic sanctions against Cuba.
For weeks lawmakers have displayed increasing restiveness about the Clinton administration's policy in Kosovo since last year's NATO air war. The House voted on Wednesday to begin withdrawing troops from Kosovo next April unless the president could certify that NATO allies were assuming more of the peacekeeping burden.
In pressing for an even tougher measure, Byrd and Warner argued that Clinton had recklessly committed troops to the war-torn region without congressional approval and that it was time for lawmakers to demonstrate their displeasure in the strongest terms. But opponents warned that the measure if approved would put U.S. troops there at greater risk, strain relations with NATO allies and hand Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic the victory that eluded him on the battlefield last year.
For Congress to impose a deadline for withdrawal that can be lifted only if it changes its mind "creates a year of very dangerous uncertainty, a year of wavering commitments," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a leading opponent.
The outcome of the fight appeared in doubt until shortly before the roll was called. While the measure drew substantial bipartisan support last week within the Senate Appropriations Committee, Warner said "the dynamic changed" after the administration waged a "full court press," including a presidential veto threat from Defense Secretary William Cohen and strong warnings from Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said Bush's intervention this week was the decisive factor in the final outcome, but others said it was a combination of factors.
"I can't say (Bush's opposition) changed a single vote but it gave great weight to the arguments we were trying to make," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Bush's chief foe in the GOP primaries and critic of the amendment.
The House this week attached its Kosovo provision to the defense authorization bill. Under that amendment, the president would have to certify before next April 1 that European allies were meeting a specified percentage of their aid pledge and that they were fulfilling other commitments. Without such certification, the president would have to submit a plan within 30 days for a withdrawal of troops.