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Iraq Renews Historic Tensions Between President and US Congress Over Power to Wage War


As the U.S. Senate prepares to debate President Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq, it also serves as a reminder of the historical tensions that have existed between the president and Congress during times of war. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war and fund military operations. The president is given the role of commander in chief of the armed forces and has the responsibility for carrying out military operations.

Some Democrats believe the time has come for Congress to oppose the president's troop surge in Iraq by withholding funding for the additional forces.

Among them is Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

"If and when Congress acts on the will of the American people by ending our involvement in the Iraq war, Congress will be performing the role assigned it by the founding fathers, that is, defining the nature of our military commitments and acting as a check on a president whose policies are weakening our nation," he said.

Many Republicans and some Democrats oppose the idea of a funding cutoff. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch argues there are limits on congressional war-making powers and that cutting funding would send the wrong message to U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.

"The convention that framed our Constitution rejected empowering Congress to make war in favor of declaring war," he said. "Similarly, that convention unanimously rejected an amendment that would have granted Congress the power to declare peace. So, the idea that Congress has some explicit power to end war or declare peace does not come from the Constitution. The message to our troops is that we no longer support them or their mission."

Historians say the founders of the U.S. republic had strong feelings about placing most of the government's war-making powers with Congress.

Louis Fisher is an expert on constitutional law at the Library of Congress. He recently testified before a Senate subcommittee.

"And when you look at the framers [of the Constitution], their view of history was that executives [leaders], over time in their search for fame and glory, got nations into wars that were ruinous to the people and ruinous to the treasury," he said. "So that is why the power of initiating war was placed in Congress, and the president has certain powers of a defensive nature to repel sudden attacks."

But historians also note there is some ambiguity in the Constitution as to what the shared powers of the president and the Congress should be during war time.

Walter Dellinger served in the Justice Department during the Clinton administration and now teaches law at Duke University in North Carolina. He argues that Congress historically has had an important role in deciding when the United States goes to war, and for how long.

"The president, as commander in chief, I think, has the authority to choose the sub- commanders, to determine the tactics, to decide how to carry out the tasks which the military has been assigned," he said. "But it is ultimately Congress that decides the size, scope and duration of the use of military force, and this has been recognized by administrations of both political parties throughout our time."

In the past, Congress has used its war powers to cut off or limit funding for the war in Vietnam, as well as conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia and Cambodia.

But some legal scholars argue that Congress has gone too far in the past in exercising its war powers.

Robert Turner co-founded of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia. He argues that the president must take the lead during wartime.

"In the conduct of war and the conduct of foreign affairs, the president, in fact, is the decider," he said. "Decisions involving the conduct of war, including where to move troops, whether to reinforce troops, whether to move troops from one hill to another, are vested exclusively in the president, and when Congress tries to control this power, either directly by statute or by conditions to appropriations, it becomes a law breaker and it violates the Constitution."

However, even some Republicans are warning President Bush not to ignore Congress' traditional role in asserting itself during wartime.

"The president repeatedly makes reference to the fact that he is the decider," said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. "I would suggest, and suggest respectfully to the president, that he is not the sole decider, that the decider is a shared and joint responsibility."

The United States has formally declared war against foreign nations 11 times in its history. On each occasion, the declaration was first requested by the president, either in writing or before a joint session of Congress.

The U.S. last declared war during World War II. Since then, Congress has been asked to authorize a host of military engagements, including the current one in Iraq.

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