The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost US taxpayers more than $1.3 trillion over 10 years, but it took the 93-day engagement in Libya, which has yet to top $1 billion, to rouse Congress to challenge the White House over the president's powers to wage war.
The Republican caucus, focused for the past six months on cutting spending, is particularly divided about Libya. Some libertarians, including GOP freshmen, are siding with antiwar Democrats in an attempt to cut off war funding. Others see that move as a betrayal of the GOP’s tradition of support for national security.
But all share a conviction that the president needs to take Congress’s constitutional role in times of war more seriously. “Libya has been handled extremely poorly by the president,” says Rep. Rob Bishop (R) of Utah. “If we cut the funding, it’s because this administration is so inexperienced.”
At a GOP caucus meeting on Wednesday, Republicans urged their leaders to take a measure to the floor that “had teeth,” several lawmakers said.
House Republicans currently have two options before them.
One measure toes the traditional Republican line of supporting the president's authority to use force. It would authorize limited US operations in Libya for a year.
The other option, still in the works, would cut off funding for combat missions in Libya, maintaining money only for “nonhostile actions.” The aim is to “cut off funding for hostilities, but not leave our NATO allies in the lurch,” says Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John Boehner.
Floor votes on the two measures might not happen until Friday.
Many Republicans say Mr. Obama has needlessly put them in a tough position. “We don’t have any good options given where we are,” says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona. “We’re looking for an option less likely to damage our relations with our NATO allies and embolden [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi, but also send a signal to the president that Congress can’t be ignored.”
Republicans have rejected the president’s claim that the US role in Libya does not rise to the level of “hostilities,” so does not fall under the requirements of the War Powers Resolution. That 1973 measure requires presidents to end US involvement in hostilities after 60 days, unless Congress authorizes the mission to continue. Obama has not sought congressional approval for the Libya mission.
Though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq never received explicit approval from Congress, they evoked less constitutional blowback from Congress because they were seen as being covered by the general approval for use of force that Congress passed shortly after 9/11.
“Republicans have given this president a great deal of support on Iraq and Afghanistan, but the president has done a very poor job marshaling public and political support for Libya,” says Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Arizona. “People are angry. This is a really serious constitutional issue.”
Meanwhile, Democrats, too, are divided over how far to push a president of their own party, especially as he is gearing up for reelection. Antiwar Democrats applaud the unexpected support they are getting from GOP freshmen, with whom they share few other policy interests.
“You’re seeing some of the most conservatives members of the House speaking out against this,” says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio. “The Pentagon has taken up more than half of domestic spending, and the inability to have a domestic agenda is directly related to the costs of war."
On Wednesday, Congressman Kucinich and freshman Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan announced that they will be proposing an amendment to the 2012 Defense Appropriations bill to cut off funding for the war in Libya.