WASHINGTON — CAPITOL Hill lawmakers are considering their strongest move yet on Bosnia after years of allowing the White House a free hand in US policy toward the battered Balkans.
This week, the Senate seems certain to approve legislation that would force a unilateral lifting of the United Nations arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian government. The House is likely to follow suit - plopping on President Clinton's desk a measure he opposes and has promised to veto.
The results of the new, supposedly more forceful UN peacekeeper posture in Bosnia-Herzegovina thus become a crucial factor in determining what path US policy will take next.
If a UN Rapid Reaction Force and the threat of wider airstrikes deter Bosnian Serb aggression, Congress may not be able to override a Clinton veto. But if it turns out little has changed, and more so-called ''safe areas'' fall, Mr. Clinton may well lose an override vote - ensuring a major change in the course of the Bosnian war.
''This vote is about giving the Bosnian people a chance. It is also about standing up for American principles of justice and fairness,'' said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, adding that he believed the Senate would approve lifting the embargo.
That's not the way the administration sees it. Lifting the arms embargo would Americanize the war, White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said in a broadcast interview over the weekend. US troops likely would have to arm and train Bosnian government forces; in addition, an end to the arms embargo also would end the UN peacekeeping mission, forcing the US to live up to its promise to send ground troops to help evacuate the peacekeeping units of its allies.
''I hope that the Senate and Senate majority leader Bob Dole will take another look at whether they ought to proceed here,'' Mr. Panetta said.
NATO allies have agreed that they will respond to Bosnian Serb aggression with a much greater use of air power than in the past, Panetta pointed out. ''We ought to give that a chance and we ought not to undermine that.''
Senator Dole has scheduled a vote on the issue for today. Senate debate over the merits of lifting the arms embargo was interrupted last week after Clinton personally asked for the delay.
Current wording of the Senate legislation calls for a lifting of the embargo after UN peacekeeping forces have departed, or 12 weeks after the Bosnian government has asked them to leave. Bosnian officials have grown increasingly cynical about Western intentions and have indicated that they will request a UN withdrawal if peacekeepers fail to stop repeated Serb attacks on the remaining safe havens.
SENATE sources predict a wide margin of victory for the arms-embargo bill today. Its chances of easy passage ''have not been hurt by the events of last week,'' says a well-placed Senate GOP source.
Western leaders over the weekend threatened Bosnian Serbs with disproportionate airstrikes only if they attack the safe area of Gorazde, the source notes. ''They are talking about Gorazde but now all these other places are being attacked.''
As of this writing, fighting continued in the safe area of Zepa, though it appeared to have all but fallen to Serb control. More ominous, combat around the northwestern enclave of Bihac has flared in recent days, and shells are once again falling on Bosnian government-held sections of Sarajevo.
Meanwhile, the first elements of the UN Rapid Reaction Force are now in place on Mt. Igman, southwest of Sarajevo.
The British and French forces - two artillery units and an infantry company - had orders to destroy Serb heavy guns that fire on peacekeepers.
Whether the American people favor congressional moves to lift the arms embargo and allow the Muslims greater means to defend themselves is not entirely clear.
One poll, released yesterday by a human rights group named the American Task Force for Bosnia, found that a plurality of 39 percent of respondents favored lifting the embargo. Twenty-two percent were opposed.
A Time-CNN poll recently found that 50 percent of respondents opposed lifting the embargo, however, with 36 percent in support. The survey found 59 percent of respondents believe that the US has done enough in Bosnia. Only about 31 percent felt the US should do more.