Congress balks at giving Bush a blank check

Legislators work behind closed doors to limit the president's request for unprecedented power to wage war.

By Jake Tapper

Published September 14, 2001 12:12AM (EDT)

Despite a rigorously maintained public image of lock-armed amity between Congress and the White House, Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate quietly discussed placing limits on President Bush's request for unprecedented powers to wage war Thursday.

Leaders of the House and Senate remained mindful of the need to stand united in the face of unspeakable international terrorism -- and to give Bush money and power to deal with Tuesday's horror and its aftermath. But they also didn't want to almost completely abrogate their responsibilities as the one branch of government with the authority to appropriate money and declare war.

Which, to both Democrats and Republicans, is what Bush asked them to do on Wednesday, according to congressional sources.

Wednesday evening, the White House presented draft legislation to Congress that would give to him "the authority to use all necessary and appropriate force a) against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the attacks against the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001; and b) to deter and prevent any future acts of terrorism against the United States." It's that last clause that members of the House and Senate, both Democrat and Republican, expressed concern about, since they feel it would grant the president too much power to wage war, which constitutionally only Congress can do.

Likewise, Democrats and Republicans were reluctant to agree to appropriate the amount of money the White House wanted to fund this fight, which was -- as first proposed by the White House -- whatever he wanted, a blank check.

Congress is determined to put on a unified front, however, so on Thursday morning House Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., told ABC's "Good Morning America," "There is absolutely no light or air between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the president. We will stand with the president to get this done and to take whatever action he deems and our defense people deem to do."

If Bush wants "the authorization to use force, that's what we'll do," Gephardt said.

But in reality, a House GOP leadership source allowed that "the usual executive branch/legislative branch tussle" was going on -- though on a much larger scale than anytime since the 1960s, if not before that.

"We are a coequal branch," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on Thursday, "and we need to take a look at language and make sure that we've thought it through carefully." Lott said that the leaders of the House and Senate were "looking at the language, seeing that it is constitutional" and "making sure that we're retaining, you know, our responsibilities. It's a normal process."

Seconded Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.: "We are concerned that we be recognized as the coequal branches. We set both defense and foreign policy."

The White House argued that the legislation was largely symbolic. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Per the Constitution, the president as commander in chief has authority vested in him to take actions as he deems appropriate." But, he said, the Bush administration was seeking the legislation "as a real show of unity by the United States Congress" as well as "a recognition of the unity of our nation."

Congress would take issue with that, of course, but then again, Fleischer said, "There have been some 125 military actions that took place in the United States, and I believe only five involved declarations of war."

Still, to some the bills seemed like overreaching. "I don't blame the president for the power grab," says a senior House GOP staffer. "He wants to get Congress on his side." Nonetheless, the source said, the congressional leadership spent Thursday negotiating with the White House to come up with a more limited hand-over of both money and power.

After receiving Wednesday's request, Democratic appropriators, like Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, suggested giving the president $5 billion to $10 billion immediately with the understanding that more would come. Republicans like Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, of Florida, chairman of House Appropriations, upped the figure to $20 billion.

So on Thursday morning, Bush sent House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a letter asking Congress "to immediately pass and send to me the enclosed request for $20,000,000,000 in FY 2001 emergency appropriations to provide resources to address the terrorist attacks on the United States that occurred on September 11, 2001, and the consequences of such attacks."

While in the past such funds are broken down into smaller appropriations for specific purposes, appropriators spent Thursday working with the White House on general guidelines for the use of the funds. The White House wanted the $20 billion to be at the president's discretion.

Rep. Obey seemed skeptical about allowing the president to spend the money any way he saw fit, without expert consultations or congressional approval. He told reporters Thursday that Congress doesn't "want a dime's worth of difference with the president, but you don't make 10-year policy on attacking terrorism on the back of an envelope."

Said Gephardt, "I think the concerns can be handled correctly and properly. That's why we're meeting today and trying to work it all out."

In negotiations held Thursday evening between House and Senate leaders as well as House and Senate appropriators -- Young, Obey, Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska -- a compromise was hammered out. According to the deal, Bush would get $10 billion immediately to use as he sees fit, with another $10 billion available to him after he submits a plan with descriptions of how the money will be spent. If he submits the plan and Congress doesn't act on it within 15 days, Bush gets that second $10 billion, too.

Additionally, the appropriators carved out another $20 billion from the 2002 budget, which begins at the end of the month when the fiscal year concludes.

Similar negotiations took place Thursday evening regarding the war powers given the president; the matter was initially scheduled for a vote on Friday morning.

Daschle said that he wanted the authority given Bush to more closely resemble the "very clear statement of intent with regard to the president's authority and with regard to Congress' intentions" seen in the congressional resolution following the invasion of Pearl Harbor -- as opposed to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which many have argued was so vaguely worded it gave then-Pres. Lyndon Johnson too much power.

The ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., "wasn't happy with the initial draft language that came from the White House last night," a Skelton spokeswoman said. "It was a pretty vague document."

It shouldn't be too difficult to fix, however. A senior House GOP source said that he anticipated the removal of the Subsection "b" clause granting the president "the authority to use all necessary and appropriate force" specifically "to deter and prevent any future acts of terrorism against the United States." That sentiment might be expressed in the document, but that specific power would probably not be granted, he said.

Nor, as White House spokesman Fleischer pointed out, is it necessarily needed. The president, as commander in chief, can take steps to prevent terrorist acts. The question is whether the Subsection "b" clause is vaguely worded enough so as to give the president the power to virtually declare war, which is solely the power of Congress.

Said Lott, "we want to make sure we've thought it through and that it's not language that we would later on regret."

Some members of Congress also sought to include potential targets for U.S. retaliation to include nations that "harbor" those whom Bush "determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the attacks." Though the use of the term "aided" probably covers those nations already, adding "harbored" would send a signal to those nations that have cooperated with terrorists in the past.

At Thursday's White House press conference, reporters tried to clarify the White House's request. "Is it the White House view that whatever action is taken and whatever the scale and duration of the action, that you need no further approval from Congress?" a reporter asked. "You'd like something from Congress, but you don't need anything else from Congress?"

"I'll say it for the third time," Fleischer responded. "The Constitution vests in the president as commander in chief the authority to take actions he deems necessary to protect and defend the United States." That said, Bush is "very encouraged as the result of working with Congress on this joint resolution," he said, "which is a real show of unity."

In the end, congressional sources say that they anticipate at least a close-to-unanimous vote on both bills, with Bush getting a vast array of power and moneys with urgency. Bush's admonition in his letter -- "Passing this supplemental appropriations bill without delay will send a powerful signal of unity to our fellow Americans and to the world" -- looms large in all their minds, they said. But not necessarily larger than the Constitution.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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