The War Powers Act needs to be overhauled to eliminate a provision that sets automatic deadlines for withdrawal of U.S. troops from global hot spots such as the Persian Gulf, says an influential senator on national security issues.
"I think it needs to be substantially revised," said Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.Nunn said he plans to propose revisions of the 1973 law within the next several weeks but said his proposal would not affect the current Persian Gulf policy.
"I'm just in the process of drafting it now," said Nunn, who explained he wants to discuss his proposals with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and administration officials.
President Reagan has refused to invoke the War Powers Act for his Persian Gulf policy, but he has consulted with congressional leaders.
The act requires a report from the White House within 48 hours after U.S. troops are sent into areas of "imminent hostilities." Under some circumstances, those forces would have to be withdrawn within 60 days unless Congress votes to permit them to remain.
Nunn said "the automatic withdrawal provision ought to be removed." Nunn has objected to the timetables because they are arbitrary, Congress can circumvent them by using its power over the purse-strings, and they shift the focus of the law away from consultations between the president and Congress.
He also plans to propose a leadership council of unnamed senior congressional leaders who would consult with the president regularly about national security issues.
"You cannot have 435 congressmen and 100 senators all be informed," Nunn said. "But you can have a leadership council and then it becomes the job of congressional leaders to inform the House and Senate."
Nunn said the law contains no enforcement provision and thus Congress has no effective response to Reagan's refusal to invoke the law.
"The law is on the books, and it ought to either be obeyed or declared unconstitutional," Nunn said. "But if the president decides he's not going to follow the law, there's nothing Congress can do."
Congress has the option of passing a bill to invoke the War Powers Act, he said, but Reagan could veto it and a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate would then have to override the veto to trigger the law.
Reagan was widely praised on Capitol Hill this week for telling House and Senate leaders about the planned U.S. attacks on Iranian oil platforms before the attacks started.
But some senators still said the War Powers Act should be invoked, arguing that the last U.S.-Iran clash meets the requirements of the bill.
"If this situation doesn't trigger War Powers, nothing will," said Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., one of the chief Senate critics of Reagan's refusal to invoke the law.
Reagan, as have all previous presidents, contends that the act is an unconstitutional limit on his authority to conduct foreign policy.
Last summer, a group of 115 legislators, most of them House Democrats, sued in federal court here to seek an order requiring Reagan to trigger the law. The suit was dismissed on grounds that it was a political dispute and thus outside the reach of the judiciary, but the legislators are appealing that ruling.
The only time that Congress has succeeded in invoking the War Powers law was 1983, when U.S. Marines were sent into Beirut as part of an international peacekeeping force.