US role in Libya mission: Top Democrats say Obama got it right

Top Democrats in the Senate and House back Obama's commitment to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, and accept his assurances the US role as mission leader would be brief.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama answers question on the ongoing situation in Libya during his joint news conference with President Mauricio Funes in San Salvador, El Salvador, Tuesday. With rank-and-file members of Congress casting doubt on the US role in Libya, high ranking Democrats back Obama's decision, saying he got it right.

With Congress in recess, the response on Capitol Hill to President Obama’s decision to commit US forces to a new mission in Libya has been sporadic, mixed, and mainly from rank-and-file members.

But top Democrats on Wednesday rallied behind Mr. Obama’s decision to support the enforcement of a UN-authorized no-fly zone and avoid a massacre of Libyan civilians.

“Actions taken by the international community have already prevented Qaddafi from implementing his threat to ‘show no mercy’ to his own people, including those living in the city of Benghazi,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.

On the Senate side, majority whip Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island, a member of that panel, praised the president on Wednesday for moving forward with support from the international community, especially the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council.

“The president reminded us that we'd move forward in this action with the support of the Arab League,” Senator Durbin said in a conference call on Wednesday. “It may have taken a few extra days, but I think most would agree – I certainly would – that I think that was a very prudent course of action for the president and for our nation.”

He predicted that the White House will find bipartisan support for the Libya mission when the Senate returns next week.

Wednesday’s expressions of support followed criticism from some GOP conservatives and antiwar Democrats that the president had exceeded his constitutional authority in taking the nation into combat without congressional authorization.

On Tuesday, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio said that he aims to take amendments to the floor to defund US military activities in Libya.

“President Obama authorized the use of US forces in Libya without stating what vital US national interest was at stake and without the broad support of the American people or their representatives in the Congress,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R) of Michigan, in a statement on Wednesday.

But the Democratic senators said that they took the president at his word that the US military role in taking the lead in establishing a no-fly zone would be brief. “I think it’s going to be very, very short,” said Senator Levin. “Involvement in terms of supporting the continuation of the no-fly zone I think would be ongoing.”

On the House side, Speaker John Boehner released a letter to the White House Wednesday that noted that the US “has long stood with those who seek freedom from oppression through self-government and an underlying structure of basic human rights.”

“I respect your authority as Commander-in-Chief and support our troops as they carry out their mission,” he added.

But he also called on the White House to provide “a clear and robust assessment of the scope, objective, and purpose” of the mission in Libya, and how it will be achieved. Most notably, the speaker asked for clarification on whether it’s an acceptable outcome if Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi remains in power.

“You have said that the support of the international community was critical to your decision to strike Libya. But, like many Americans, it appears many of our coalition partners are themselves unclear on the policy goals of this mission,” Boehner wrote. “If the coalition dissolves or partners continue to disengage, will the American military take on an increased role?”

When Congress returns next week, it will have until April 8 to come to an agreement on funding for the balance of FY 2011 – or risk a government shutdown. With that fiscal crisis in mind, leaders on both sides of the aisle are also asking for more information on the cost of the Libya mission and whether Congress can expect a request for emergency funding.

At a briefing with congressional staffers on Tuesday, Obama administration briefers ducked the question on how much the mission would cost and how it would be funded. “They said that would be for another briefing,” said an aide who attended the meeting.

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