Congress took the first step Wednesday toward limiting President Clinton's authority to deal with the crisis in Haiti, as the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution authorizing the presence of U.S. forces there only until March 1.
The measure was backed on a 27-18 vote along party lines after a spirited debate in which both sides made it clear that they still have deep reservations about the Haiti mission. Democrats succeeded in turning back efforts by House Republicans to support an even earlier deadline.
However, while the House seems certain to vote for a withdrawal date before Congress adjourns for the year next week, Clinton's supporters said they hoped that a confrontation will be avoided in the Senate, where the sentiment for setting a mandatory deadline appears to be dissipating in the face of strong opposition from the Defense Department.
"Most people still want to get out of Haiti as quickly as possible, but the argument that setting a deadline would undermine both the mission and the morale of the troops is beginning to gain ground," said a senior Republican foreign policy aide, who predicted that the Senate will end up "fudging" the issue by calling for an early withdrawal in a non-binding resolution.
Many senators had initial misgivings over what they believed was an ill-defined and overly ambitious mission. But the fact that the deployment has gone "very smoothly over the first week has taken some of the air out of the balloon," and there is less momentum to confront Clinton with a "hard and fast" deadline, said a Democratic aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Fear of "another Somalia" drove the congressional debate over Haiti last week, as lawmakers voiced alarm that an incident like last October's slaying of 18 Army Rangers by Somali gunmen could occur in Haiti. Members of both parties, however, said they have been swayed by the arguments made by senior Pentagon officials over the last several days.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch and Lt. Gen. John J. Sheehan, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. commanders would lose the tactical and psychological advantage they now have in Haiti if, in Sheehan's words, "the enemies of democracy . . . know that all they have to do is blend into the background and wait 30, 60 or 90 days" for U.S. troops to leave. The two men made similar arguments before a House panel Tuesday.
Although support for the mission is still thin, "we are starting to see a bipartisan approach that would not put our troops in peril by setting a date certain for their withdrawal," said Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"We don't want to do anything to increase the risk to our troops," agreed Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).
The mood in the House, however, was more jumpy. Most lawmakers still insist on an opportunity to set a deadline for withdrawing the troops before adjourning to confront an electorate with whom Clinton's decision to occupy Haiti remains unpopular.
"We're going to set a date, and the only question is whether it's March 1 or sooner," a House Foreign Affairs Committee aide said.
Although the resolution adopted Wednesday contains no funding cutoff to force compliance, it has a provision providing for an expedited vote as early as Feb. 1 to force termination of the mission within 30 days if Congress feels the Administration is not making sufficient progress toward a troop withdrawal by then.
It also orders Clinton to provide Congress with three "progress reports" on the Haiti mission between now and Feb. 1.
"This defines the limited role to be played by U.S. forces and gives the President a reasonable time to complete the mission," said committee Chairman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
A committee aide described the resolution as an attempt to preserve some degree of flexibility for Clinton while giving Democrats the "political cover they are demanding" in case the mission goes awry during the recess.