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Lawmakers Largely Silent on War Powers Authority in Libya

by Mike Lillis and John T. Bennett

U.S. operations in Libya hit the 60-day mark Friday, but Congress has grown largely silent on the administration’s unilateral intervention into the war-torn North African nation.

Libyan rebel fighters man a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ajdabiya, in the country's east. Breaching the 60-day deadline sets a bad precedent for administrations to come, according to critics on and off of Capitol Hill, who are calling on Congress to push back against the president’s war-waging powers. (AFP/Saeed Khan) The 1973 War Powers Act (WPA) — the statute President Obama invoked when he launched forces in March — requires presidents to secure congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30.

Congress did not authorize the mission — which includes a no-fly zone, bombing raids, a sea blockade and civilian-protection operations — but the deadline has stirred little sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.

House lawmakers are in the midst of a weeklong recess. And the Senate, which stuck around, is also unlikely to address the issue this week, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

There has been some congressional action, however.

On Thursday, six Senate Republicans wrote to Obama asking him if he intends to comply with the WPA.

“Friday is the final day of the statutory sixty-day period for you to terminate the use of the United States Armed Forces in Libya under the War Powers Resolution,” reads the letter, spearheaded by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “As recently as last week your administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely.”

Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) also endorsed the letter.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is another vocal critic of the Libya intervention. He has vowed to introduce legislation Monday invoking the War Powers Act in an effort to pull U.S. forces from the conflict.

“At home, people are being told to sacrifice their own quality of life because our government does not have sufficient resources for healthcare, education, retirement security and job creation,” Kucinich said. “Yet at the same time we are setting the stage for endless war which will bring ruin and poverty.”

Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.), senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned earlier in the month, however, that such a resolution would likely be shot down in the Senate.

Others, including Levin, simply think that formal congressional authorization for the Libyan intervention is unnecessary. Still, he left open the possibility that the upper chamber could eventually act on a Libya resolution — if “a number of legal questions” are ironed out.

Breaching the 60-day deadline sets a bad precedent for administrations to come, according to critics on and off of Capitol Hill, who are calling on Congress to push back against the president’s war-waging powers.

Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, said the Libya war is “a classic case of what could go wrong with executive war-making.”

“My concern is not this relatively small war,” Ackerman said in a phone interview. “This is going to be a precedent for the next president.”

With longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi threatening to attack those critical of his regime, international forces — led by the U.S. — launched air and missile strikes in March to establish a no-fly zone over the beleaguered North African nation. The U.S. ceded control of the operations to NATO a few days later.

At the time, several lawmakers expressed concern that the president had not consulted Congress before acting.

Obama on Thursday defended his decision, arguing that thousands of civilians would have been killed at the hands of Gadhafi.

“In Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre; we had a mandate for action and heard the Libyan people’s call for help,” the president said in a speech at the State Department. “Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.”

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 12 that the administration does want some form of congressional authorization. Steinberg described what the administration would seek as a “narrow set of authorities,” and promised to work with Congress on how those powers would be used.

Laena Fallon, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said Thursday that the Virginia Republican is more concerned with “the lack of a defined mission and purpose” in Libya than he is with the president’s authority to extend the operations beyond the 90-day window without congressional authority.

Still, Fallon added, the House could “possibly consider this issue on the floor during the defense authorization debate next week.”

Yet Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), provided the more typical response from congressional leaders regarding Friday’s deadline. Asked if Boehner thinks the White House needs congressional approval to continue U.S. operations in Libya, Steel responded with one sentence.

“The House,” he said, “is not in session this week.”

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