How Congress's anger over Libya mission became a civics lesson
While elements of the House fume about how President Obama has handled the Libya mission, the Senate is taking a longer view, which could help Obama.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Sens. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona introduced a bipartisan resolution on Tuesday to authorize limited US operations in Libya for a year, not to include the introduction of US ground forces.
Through their actions, the senators are providing a civics lesson in real time: As elements of the House threaten action against the president, saying he has illegally taken country to war without congressional approval, the Senate is taking a longer view.
“I think passage of this resolution would be an important step in showing the country and the rest of the world and particularly showing to Muammar Qaddafi that the Congress of the United States and the president of the United States are committed to this critical endeavor,” said Senator Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Senate's stand derives from at least three elements:
- Democrats control the Senate and are more reluctant that the GOP House majority to challenge a Democratic president as he ramps up for a 2012 reelection bid.
- The hurdles for legislation are higher in the Senate than the House. It takes a supermajority of 60 votes to pass legislation in the Senate, but only a simple majority (218 of 435) in the House.
- Only a third of the Senate faces reelection in any campaign cycle, as opposed to 100 percent of the House. That distance from the electorate often gives senators freedom to take political risks that voters have time to forget.
President Obama has been urging the Senate to move a resolution of support to the floor as soon as possible. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada told reporters on Tuesday that he expects all Democrats on the Foreign Relations panel to back the measure, and that he has the votes to pass the measure on the floor.
“Senator Reid has made it clear that he is not going to cause problems for President Obama,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. “Democrats don’t have the stomach to move on war powers. Most legislators don’t really care about it. They’ve given away war powers over the decades so the president takes the responsibility and blame for things when the war goes badly.”
The same thing cannot be said in the House, where some members accuse Mr. Obama of violating the War Powers Act, which requires congressional approval for wars lasting longer than 90 days. The White House has responded that the Libya mission does not constitute a war.