A resolution by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, to require the president to withdraw US forces from the Libya military campaign within 15 days, got scant attention – until a significant number of Republican representatives surprised their House leadership by indicating that they would vote for the measure.
The resolution was abruptly pulled from the House calendar Wednesday – an indication of the deep Republican divide over the prospect of voting against a US military operation.
The House Republican leadership is now scrambling for a way to formally express legislators' growing dissatisfaction with the military operation Obama ordered in early March – but without it sounding like a criticism in any way of the military.
The House could still take up Representative Kucinich’s resolution on Friday, either to vote on it or to schedule a vote for a a later date. In the meantime, some Republicans are considering an alternative measure that would rebuke the president for going to war without congressional approval.
The War Powers Act
At the heart of the debate is the War Powers Resolution, a 1973 act that orders the president to seek congressional approval for a military intervention that lasts more than 60 days. Thursday is the 75th day of US participation in what started as a US-led operation but which is now directed by NATO. The US has taken a backseat, supportive role in a bombing campaign led by Great Britain and France and increasingly appearing to have as its goal the removal from power of Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
The anti-war Kucinich is no favorite of congressional Republicans, but he suddenly finds a number of them willing to hold their nose and support his resolution based on their concerns that Obama is disregarding Congress – and US law – with the Libya war.
In April a libertarian constitutional lawyer, Bruce Fein, went so far as to draft an article of impeachment against Obama over the Libya intervention. Mr. Fein, a former deputy attorney general under President Reagan, on Thursday criticized the House Republican leadership’s decision to put off a vote on Kucinich’s resolution as “part of the empire mentality that is out to frustrate popular sentiment and the proper working of Constitutional government.”
At the other end of the Republican spectrum is Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who has said he does not consider the War Powers Resolution to be constitutional. As a result, he says he sees no obligation for Obama to seek congressional approval to pursue the Libya intervention.
The White House insists Obama has acted lawfully in authorizing the Libya operation – spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that “the president has acted in a way that is consistent with the War Powers Resolution” – but officials are nevertheless watching the House debate with some trepidation. Obama did submit a letter to Congress on May 20 seeking congressional support for the Libya operation.
A resolution expressing support for the Libya campaign exists on the Senate side, but has yet to be brought to a vote.
Congress's other options
Some foreign policy experts are cautioning that a congressional rejection of the Libya operation could provide succor to Colonel Qaddafi – just as signs point to Qaddafi's deteriorating internal support and a solidifying Libyan opposition.
“Now is not the time for the United States to show a lack of resolve, thereby emboldening Qaddafi,” says Robert Zarate, a policy advisor at the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington. “Yet several congressional proposals to protest or preemptively end US military involvement in Libya risk doing just that.”
Congress has less extreme measures available, short of ordering a US exit from the Libya campaign, says James Carafano, a defense and homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“The withdrawal provisions of the War Powers Resolution … are unconstitutional and undermine the authority of the President as commander-in-chief,” Mr. Carafano writes on the Heritage website.
A Congress unhappy with Obama’s actions on Libya could take a number of steps, he says, including to “rebuke the President for failing to adequately consult Congress on the Libya intervention.”
Congress could also demand that Obama provide some clarity on the “intent and scope” of the Libya operation, he says, and eventually vote to withhold funding if it determined that pursuing the military operation is not in US interests.