April 28, 1999: The Last Time Congress Denied a President’s War Demands

With Bill Clinton and office and before 9/11, Tom DeLay, above, was a dove.

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

While talking and thinking and prognosticating about Syria, it’s really worth remembering that “Congress gives the president his way on war” isn’t really a norm. It was after 9/11, sure, but as I tried to convey in my story today, Republicans don’t exactly brim with pride about those votes. Before 9/11 the norm among Republicans—who ran both houses of Congress—was skepticism of military entanglement.

So, go back and read the votes on April 28, 1999, when the House was asked to approve a resolution authorizing airstrikes against the shrinking Republic of Yugoslavia. It was a pretty clear question, in a region where the decade’s interventions had been fairly free of American quagmires. It failed, on a 213-213 split, and of the Republicans who cast votes, they broke better than 6-1 against intervention.

Among the “no” votes, some of them citing opposition to the NATO bombing campaign up to that point, were Rep. Tom DeLay, who’d later become the majority leader, and Rep. John Kasich, who’s now governor of Ohio. Quoth DeLay: “Was it worth it to stay in Vietnam to save face? … What good has been accomplished so far? Absolutely nothing.” Quoth Kasich: “The fact is the civil war in Kosovo has been raging since 1389. The fact is, our intervening in the middle of an ethnic civil war that has been going on for six centuries is not likely to be successful.”

Of the 30 Republicans who voted “aye,” very few remain in Congress. Rep. John McHugh is now Barack Obama’s secretary of the Army.* Reps. Wayne Gilchrest and Mike Castle were defeated in primaries. Only three Republicans who voted for Kosovo—Reps. Peter King, Rodney Frelinghuysen, and Frank Wolf—remain in Congress.

So: What happens if only 30 Republicans vote for Syria this time? Given the breakdown of the Democrats, the resolution probably fails.

*I called him “Secretary of the Navy” before – my mistake.