Narrowing his eyes in a stiff spring breeze, Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York stands outside the US Capitol, virtually bristling for a ground war against the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic.
"He's a murderer," says Representative Engel, flanked by ethnic Albanian leaders. Engel backs the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia, he wants Washington to train and arm the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and he urged President Clinton in a letter yesterday to prepare for the contingency of dispatching US ground troops to the region.
But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Rep. Robin Hayes (R) of North Carolina shakes his head at the idea of deploying American troops. "Let's don't throw our ground troops in there and risk their lives without a clear objective and exit strategy," he says.
Deep divisions in Congress over the use of US ground troops in Yugoslavia reflect a similar ambivalence among the American public. Engel, for example, represents a large enclave of more than 20,000 ethnic Albanians in New York. Representative Hayes's district includes Fort Bragg, home to some 47,000 US Army troops including the 82nd Airborne "quick strike folks," who Hayes says would be tapped for Kosovo.
Such mixed views also help explain why Congress is taking the back seat to the president in decisionmaking on the Yugoslavia conflict - much as lawmakers have long deferred to the chief executive over questions of the use of American military force.
"Generally speaking, the president takes the lead, and Congress follows reluctantly," says Paul Peterson, a government professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. That pattern has persisted for many decades, including during wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf, says Mr. Peterson, author of "The President, Congress, and the Making of Foreign Policy."
After a conflict starts, Congress often tones down its criticism in order not to undermine the commander in chief or US military personnel in the field. Only if the president is "clearly off the mark" will Congress intervene during a military operation, as happened during the Vietnam War, says Peterson.
That pattern played out this week as top lawmakers stood publicly united - though privately skeptical - over the three-week-old NATO air campaign. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois delayed any formal debate or votes on the campaign, citing the president's assurances that the airstrikes are working.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration intensified its briefings of Congress, intended to bolster support for the strikes and secure the $3 billion to $4 billion in emergency funds the Pentagon estimates it needs to pay for them. Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton briefed the House and Senate yesterday.
Still, some lawmakers and experts believe that Congress should break with tradition and play a more active decisionmaking role in US military interventions abroad.
This week, for example, Rep. Tom Campbell (R) of California introduced two resolutions aimed at compelling Congress "to stand up for its constitutional right to declare war."
Based on the 1973 War Powers Act, the resolutions would force the House to vote either to declare war on Yugoslavia or retreat from the Balkans within 30 days. Speaker Hastert told Representative Campbell the House will bring up the resolutions.
The War Powers Act aims to check the president's warmaking powers, and promote a more active role by Congress. Under the United States Constitution, Congress has the authority to declare war, while the president has the job of commander in chief of the military.
"The act forces Congress to vote on the issue rather than to float along in limbo," says Alton Frye, director of the project on Congress and US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Although Congress can be unwieldy and inefficient, the framers rightly granted it the power to declare war because it is the branch that "pays" for military action, "not just monetarily but in the loss of life among constituents," Mr. Frye says.
Tensions between the president and Congress over the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia are likely to intensify if the Clinton administration decides to dispatch American troops to carry out a ground war against Serbian forces - an option that US officials say they are currently not planning for.
On both sides of the ground-troop issue, lawmakers are asserting their concerns.
Many lawmakers, including several prominent Republicans, currently oppose the mobilization of US ground forces because they say the Clinton administration and NATO have laid out no clear plan for such a move.
Rep. Greg Ganske (R) of Iowa has cosponsored legislation that would require Congress to authorize any funding of ground troops.
Still others, notably Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, have urged the administration to consider sending ground troops and called for a full congressional debate on the issue.
Speaking at the Shelton hearing yesterday, Senator McCain said he has "very grave concerns for the way in which this military campaign is being conducted."
"Limited actions beget limited results. You fight a war to win or you don't fight it at all," McCain said.
General Shelton responded that a ground war would be "long and drawn-out" and could not go ahead without backing from NATO allies, Congress, and the American people.
No planning is under way for sending ground troops, he added, stressing that "the air campaign is working ... we need to give it more time."