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Libya intervention: Tea party and liberal Democrats make unusual allies

On Capitol Hill, the Libya intervention has elicited antiwar voices from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Their point in common: The power to make war resides with Congress.

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Congress has been famously reluctant to take on executive war powers since World War II and the Vietnam War era. In the run-up to the Iraq war, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia delivered relentless floor speeches to his colleagues of the importance of congressional war powers. Since then, few lawmakers have fought for congressional war powers, especially in the face of a president of their own party.

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“The only way you get authority under our Constitution [to go to war] is from the Congress,” says Louis Fisher, who recently retired after four decades at the Library of Congress as senior specialist in separation of powers. Responding to congressional claims that the United Nations or NATO can legitimate the use of US force in Libya, he added: “President and the Congress through the treaty process cannot give away congressional power.”

“The framers knew the last thing anybody would want is an executive who would go to war unilaterally because they had watched countries suffer so much from countries getting involved in horrible wars. War had to be authorized by the country’s representatives,” he added.

On March 17, 8 Republicans and 85 Democrats voted to assert congressional power to order US forces out of Afghanistan. The measure failed, 93 to 321, with Congressman Amash voting “present.”

Two-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, one of the eight Republicans voting for the measure, was also one of the first members of Congress to object to a US military role in Libya. “I disagree with the use of US force in Libya,” he said in a Facebook post on March 19. “Projection of US force should be used to combat a clear and present danger to the United States of America. In this case, I see none.”

“There is a problem that members of Congress don’t want the responsibility of making decisions about war and peace,” says David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “It is partly that presidents arrogate to themselves the power to make these life and death decisions, but it is also the case that Congress lets them.”

So far, top lawmakers have limited themselves to requests for a more detailed explanation of the mission, some noting regret that President Obama did not take action sooner to protect Libyan civilians.

In a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Thursday, the chairman, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, urged the Obama administration to heed the “new Arab awakening,” the Arab League’s call for a United Nations no-fly zone, and “seize the moment and recognize the opportunity it presents.”


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