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Curbing a future president's war powers?

U.S. Senator Rodham Clinton listens during a nomination hearing of Adm. Fallon in Washington
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who hopes to become the next commander in chief, listens to Adm. William Fallon during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to head the U.S. Central Command.Yuri Gripas / Reuters
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Congress is gradually working its way toward putting limits on President Bush’s ability to use U.S. troops in Iraq.

So here’s a question for each of those senators who hopes to become the next commander in chief: How would you like if Congress put limits on your powers, if you became president?

Does putting a ceiling on the number of U.S. troops in Iraq set a precedent for a future Congress to hobble the power of the next commander in chief?

The limits Congress might enact in the next few months could come back to haunt the next president. All presidents in the past 30 years, both Republican and Democratic, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, in wars from Vietnam to Kosovo, have quarreled with Congress over their powers as commander in chief.

“I read the Constitution as the Congress having two authorities in this area; one is to declare war and the other is to cut off funding,” said a leading GOP contender, Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., Tuesday. “I’ve never seen anything in the Constitution that says that Congress can set the level of troops (in Iraq or some theater of war): that’s why we have one commander in chief. I’m astonished that people (in Congress) would think they have the knowledge and expertise as to what specific troop levels should be.”

Clinton sees no curbs if she were president
Democratic presidential contender Sen. Hillary Clinton, D- N.Y. implied Tuesday that if she were in the White House, Congress would not impose limits on her powers as commander in chief because she’d never give it reason to do so.

“I never would have waged a pre-emptive war in Iraq,” said Clinton. “And I would hope I never would have waged such a war anywhere in the world so incompetently.”

Another Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut took a similar line: “If I were commander in chief, we’d be getting our troops out of Iraq,” Dodd said. “I don’t think I’d have the problem of worrying about whether or not there’d be caps on them.”

Dodd said that a limit on a president’s deployment of troops might be something regrettable that a president simply has to live with.

“Listen, we’d prefer we didn’t have to do this,” he said.

Dodd has called for capping the number of troops in Iraq at the level it was on Jan. 16, 2007.

Perhaps with her husband’s experience in mind in his struggles with Congress over use of U.S. forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, Clinton struck the same note as Dodd: a limit on a president’s deployment of troops would be regrettable, but is now imperative.

“We’ve had caps (on U.S. troops) in Colombia; we had a cap on Bosnia. So presidents, both Republican and Democrat, have lived with caps. It’s unfortunate we get to that point,” she said.

McCain, Dodd and Clinton all voted for the 2002 congressional resolution to authorize Bush to use military force in Iraq.

Obama: 'not an optimal solution'
Sen. Barack Obama, D- Ill., like Dodd and Clinton, portrayed congressional limits on the commander in chief as a regrettable necessity.

Referring to a limit on number of troops that Bush can keep in Iraq, Obama said Tuesday, “It’s not an optimal solution for us to have to legislate military strategy. Generally speaking, those powers should be housed with the commander-in-chief because situations on the ground are constantly changing. When a president seems obstinate and unwilling to adjust strategy to the situation on the ground, repeatedly after years of bad outcomes, at some point the democratic process has to kick in.”

He added, “If I were president and I kept on making bad decisions with no end in sight, I would expect that at some point Congress would try to step in and right the course.”

Obama supports a limit on troops deployed in Iraq. On Tuesday he also introduced a bill requiring Bush to begin withdrawal of troops by May 1 with the goal of getting all troops out by the first quarter of 2008.

Last week Vice President Dick Cheney said if members of Congress really intend to end the deployment in Iraq, “they have the right, obviously, to cut off funding.”

But Obama rejected that idea Tuesday.

“Why is it that we’re only restricted to that one means? There’s nothing that prevents us from exercising other means,” he contended.

The problem with funding cut-off
According to Obama, the reason that Bush and Cheney say Congress could only cut off funding and not choose other ways to curtail the president is “because they know that politically, there’s great sensitivity in cutting off funding — or the perception that we’d be cutting off funding to the troops. So it’s a political ploy and, I think, highly cynical.”

Without addressing specific legislative limits on Bush or on future commanders in chief, another Democratic presidential hopeful ,Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, said Tuesday, “When a president of the United States decides that he or she wishes to take the country in a direction in a war fundamentally different than the majority of the American people want, the president has an obligation to listen to the American people, whether it’s me as president or anybody else as president.”

And there’s the short-term difficulty, at least politically, for the presidential contenders: what is the will of the American people?

In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, respondents were asked, “Would you favor or oppose Congress cutting funding for the Iraq war as a way to ensure that President Bush does not have sufficient funds to send troops to Iraq?”

A minority, 41 percent, supported cutting the funds, while a 52 percent opposed that idea.

The lessons of 1999
Biden and other senators wrestled with similar questions eight years ago when President Clinton sent U.S. forces to Kosovo to stop the Serbs attacks on ethnic Albanians.

In May of 1999, Biden, McCain and Dodd joined forces to co-sponsor a resolution authorizing Clinton to “use all necessary force” to support the NATO attacks on Serbia.

The Senate voted 78 to 22 to table — in other words, to kill — the McCain-Biden-Dodd resolution, with 45 Republicans and 33 Democrats voting against giving Clinton the authority.

A week earlier, the House had split 213 to 213 on a resolution supporting Clinton’s operations against Serbia.

Most Republicans, including many who now support Bush’s Iraq policy, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C. who was then a member of the House, voted to oppose Clinton.

Most House Democrats, including those such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha who now oppose Bush’s Iraq policy, voted to support Clinton in 1999.

But even without the specific authorization from Congress, Clinton had the funding and he carried on.

What the next president should ponder
One veteran of the Clinton presidency, Walter Dellinger, the former solicitor general in the Clinton administration who now teaches law at Duke University law school, said a congressionally imposed ceiling on the number of troops deployed in Iraq “is clearly constitutional — as long as you recognize that the president has the authority to make exceptions to it in exigent circumstances involving protection of U.S. troops or protection of vital interests.”

And he added, “Everyone who considers running for the presidency or becoming president has to understand that they have a responsibility to pass that office on to his or her successors with its essential attributes unimpaired by adverse (congressional) precedents.”

If past is prologue, all these arguments are likely to be reprised in some form during the next presidency.