A Republican-led effort to repeal the 1973 War Powers Act was narrowly defeated in the House on Wednesday, victim of what its once-confident sponsors conceded was "bad timing" in the midst of congressional anxiety over U.S. policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The outcome appeared to surprise both sides in an unusual debate that put Republicans in the unaccustomed position of defending a Democratic President's constitutional authority from criticism by members of his own party.
But the role reversal was short-lived as the House continued debate on a pending GOP bill that would make steep cuts in foreign aid and challenge President Clinton's policies toward a number of countries.
With even defenders of the War Powers Act conceding it is fatally flawed, Republican leaders had been confident they would finally succeed in repealing a law that has been a source of controversy and conflict between Congress and the Executive branch ever since its enactment over a weakened President Richard Nixon's veto.
The act, in theory, limits a President's ability to send U.S. troops to foreign wars for more than 60 days without congressional consent.
Long opposed to what they had come to regard, during successive GOP administrations, as an unconstitutional infringement on the President's powers as commander in chief, conservatives portrayed Wednesday's vote as a final exorcism of the ghost of Vietnam from U.S. foreign policy.
But they quickly ran up against a new specter: Bosnia. And as votes they had been confident of receiving slipped away, GOP leaders said they had failed to appreciate the extent to which Clinton's recent policy shifts--the President has suggested he might send U.S. ground troops to Bosnia in a limited role--had spooked members of both parties.
Gingrich, who tried to woo Democratic votes by arguing that a repeal of the War Powers Act would "strengthen" Clinton in foreign policy, acknowledged afterward that his arguments may have had the opposite effect.
"A Democrat came up to me after that and said 'I'm out of here,' " Gingrich said.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chief sponsor of the repeal, conceded: "It was a dangerous amendment to offer with Bosnia imminent. This was perceived by some people as strengthening Mr. Clinton's hand on Bosnia, and they didn't want to have to go home and try to explain why they had done that."
Judging from the impassioned speeches on both sides of the aisle and the vote itself, lawmakers had more doubts about the Administration's zigzagging Bosnia policy than they did about the perennial argument over the War Powers Act.
"The last few days in Bosnia should be the greatest reason for not doing this now," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) as she argued against repealing the law.
Rep. Toby Roth (R-Wis.) agreed, saying, "A deepening crisis in Bosnia may lead us, at some point, to invoke the War Powers Act."
Hyde, Gingrich and other proponents of the repeal had argued that the War Powers Act had proven so ineffective that voting to kill it would make no difference in debate over whether and under what conditions U.S. troops might be deployed to help U.N peacekeeping forces regroup in or evacuate from Bosnia.
Enacted in response to Nixon's 1970 invasion of Cambodia, the War Powers Act was meant to assert congressional authority over an area that the Constitution left deliberately vague by vesting Congress with the power to declare war but the President with the power to wage it.
But lawmakers and congressional scholars agree that it has never really worked because of a provision that allows a President to keep the clock on the 60-day deadline from starting by evading its technical reporting conditions.
With efforts to repeal the War Powers Act at least temporarily derailed, the House returned to considering a foreign assistance bill that would reorganize the State Department, eliminate much of the U.S. foreign aid bureaucracy and challenge U.S. policy toward China by recognizing the independence of Tibet and demanding Taiwan's admission to the United Nations. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate, although its chances of becoming law are slim. Clinton has said he will veto the bill.