Rep. Nancy Pelosi mistakenly claimed that President Clinton launched an airstrike in 1999 after the House rejected the use of military force in a tie vote. Actually, U.S. and NATO forces had attacked Serbia five weeks before the House vote.
The House Democratic leader spoke to reporters Sept. 3 after a White House meeting designed to rally congressional support for President Obama’s call for limited airstrikes in Syria. Pelosi, who supports the president’s plan, was asked if Obama can go forward with a military attack in Syria even if Congress votes against it.
She used the question to “remind” reporters what happened in 1999, recalling – incorrectly – that “the planes were really ready to go” into Serbia when the House failed to support military air operations by a vote of 213 to 213. [Note: The transcript shows that Pelosi said “the planes were really ready to go into Bosnia,” but her spokesman, Drew Hammill, said she misspoke and meant Serbia.]
Question: If Congress does reject this, can the president proceed if Congress rejects?
Pelosi: I don’t think Congress will reject. But I do want to remind you because the – I’ve been reading some of what some of you have written and say the president has never gone forward if Congress has not approved, when it has taken up the issue. I remind you that in 1999, President Clinton brought us all together, similar to this meeting here, but over a period of time to talk about going into the Balkans and the vote was 213-213, 187 Republicans voted ‘no,’ 180 Democrats voted ‘yes,’ about 30 on each side, something like that, went in a different way than the majority of their party. And that was when the planes were really ready to go into Bosnia [sic]. He went. And you know what happened there. So, I don’t – I don’t think that the congressional authorization is necessary. I do think it’s a good thing. And I hope that we can achieve it.
Pelosi is correct about the House vote, but it occurred five weeks after the military air campaign had already started. It’s true that both Clinton and Obama faced a skeptical Congress, but Clinton did not wait for both Houses to act before taking military action.
Peace negotiations between U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic failed to produce an agreement, and Clinton on March 23 met with 40 members of Congress to make his case for military action. That evening, the Senate voted 58-41 on a nonbinding concurrent resolution, sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, “authorizing the President of the United States to conduct military air operations and missile strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro).”
But the House did not immediately vote on the Senate’s use-of-force resolution. Nearly two weeks earlier, on March 11, the House voted 219-191 to give its conditional support for U.S. troops to be used in a peacekeeping role — if a peace agreement was reached. But it was not. After the March 23 White House meeting with the president, then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert was quoted in the Washington Times as saying: “Peacekeeping is far different from direct military action. This is a departure from the resolution we passed only last week.”