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.

By , Staff writer

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    Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts walks to the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, where he introduced a bipartisan resolution to authorize continued use of 'limited' US military force in Libya.
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With the House headed into debate this week on US military engagement in Libya, the Senate is emerging as a firewall against any move to defund the mission.

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.

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“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.”

House uproar

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.

On Wednesday, the House Republican Conference will meet to debate two options on Libya, said Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio in a statement released Tuesday evening. These include the Kerry-McCain resolution, and a resolution to remove US forces from hostilities in Libya, “except for forces engaged in nonhostile actions.”

“It is clear that the Obama Administration’s claim that targeted bombings, missile strikes, and other military actions in Libya do not constitute ‘hostilities’ under the War Powers Resolution is not credible,” Speaker Boehner said.

Senator McCain said the White House has made its own problems.

Had the president asked Congress to authorize the intervention in Libya months ago, he could have received “a strong, though certainly not unanimous show of support,” he said in a floor speech on Tuesday.

Instead, members of Congress are considering riding "to the rescue of a failing tyrant when the writing is on the wall that he will collapse,” he said.

Democrats “savaged” President Bush over the Iraq war, and Republicans would be wrong to do the same to President Obama over Libya, “simply because a leader of the opposite party occupies the White House,” he added.

GOP rifts

There are formidable rifts emerging in GOP ranks over presidential war powers in general and the conflict in Libya in particular.

Freshman Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, a libertarian, is proposing a measure charging that the president has “exceeded his authority” under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution. The resolution requires that the White House either request from Congress a binding legal authorization to continue the mission in Libya or cease “armed engagement” in Libya.

“For the last 90 days, the Senate has been irrelevant,” said Senator Paul after a caucus meeting on Tuesday. “If we don’t step up and act, we are basically saying that we are irrelevant.”

McCain and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina, leading supporters of US engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, downplay reports that Republicans on Capitol Hill are becoming more isolationist.

Ronald Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ model has stood the test of time,” says Senator Graham. “If you want to switch to a Dennis Kucinich model as a Republican, you do so at your peril,” he added, referencing the antiwar Ohio Democrat who, with Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina, filed suit in federal court last week challenging the legality of US operations in Libya.

“We’re going to prove that Ronald Reagan Republicans are alive and coming out in force,” he added.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell concedes that his caucus is divided over US involvement in Libya. He says he is looking forward to see the case that the president makes for Libya in his address to the nation on Wednesday.

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