THE more implacable Capitol Hill opponents of the Viet Nam War have for years soughtwith no successto turn the dispute into a conflict pitting Congress's authority to declare war v. the President's right as Commander in Chief to wage war. Now, because the Nixon Administration underestimated the domestic reaction to its Cambodian expedition, doves who have stressed constitutional arguments have the fulcrum they have been looking for.
By failing to inform Congress of his plans, Richard Nixon gained recruits for the opposition, particularly in the Senate. By overreacting to the challenge from a bipartisan group of antiwar Senators, the White House magnified the contest of wills into both a constitutional question and a personal test of confidence in Nixon's leadership. The President has much to lose and almost nothing to gain.
The Senate is the cockpit. This week it is due to vote on the first of two measures aimed at asserting Congress's role in making warand peace. As approved 9 to 4 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, the amendment would bar the expenditure of funds for U.S. combat activity in Cambodia after June 30. It would also prohibit financing of American personnel acting "directly or indirectly" in support of Cambodian forces either on Cambodian territory or in Cambodian airspace. The amendment, originally introduced by Republican John Sherman Cooper and Democrat Frank Church, had picked up an additional 30 cosponsors by last week, including Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and George Aiken, senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
A far more ambitious measure, drafted by Democrat George McGovern and Republican Mark Hatfield, would set a time limit on U.S. combat in South Viet Nam. As an amendment to the military procurement authorization bill, the McGovern-Hatfield scheme would prevent the expenditure of any funds for U.S. military forces in Viet Nam after Dec. 31, except for one purpose: the "safe and systematic withdrawal" of remaining American units. Money would be cut off altogether after June 30, 1971, though continued aid to the South Vietnamese would be permitted. McGovern-Hatfield would also eliminate support for operations in Cambodia 30 days after the bill's enactment, and in Laos, by Dec. 31. A vote is expected next month.
No Confidence. The Administration vehemently opposes both the Cooper-Church and McGovern-Hatfield amendments. Last week in a closed meeting with G.O.P. Senators, Administration spokesmen argued that any restraint on the President would be a show of no confidence. Next day White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler stated Nixon's case strongly and publicly. "The White House feels," he said, "that there should be no restraint on the powers of the President as Commander in Chief, as stated by the Constitution. It is the role of the Commander in Chief to protect the security of forces in the field."