WASHINGTON — Facing growing opposition on Capitol Hill, the White House insisted Wednesday that it's within its legal rights to wage war in Libya without explicit authorization from Congress, essentially because no American lives are at risk.
The administration argued that its limited role in the allied air campaign against Libya means it's not really the kind of escalating war that would require approval from Congress or an end to fighting after 60 days under the War Powers Resolution, passed in 1973 in response to the Vietnam War.
Even before the White House could sent its arguments to Capitol Hill, 10 members of the House of Representatives — conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats — filed suit in U.S. District Court Wednesday challenging President Barack Obama's right to wage the war, even if in a supporting role.
"We believe the law was violated," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, one of the effort's leaders. "We have asked the courts to protect the American people from the results of these illegal policies."
In a 32-page report to Congress, the White House laid out its argument.
"U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors," the White House said.
"We're now in a position where we're operating in a support role," said a senior Obama administration official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity under White House policy.
"We're not engaged in sustained fighting. There's been no exchange of fire with hostile forces. We don't have troops on the ground. We don't risk casualties to those troops. None of the factors, frankly, speaking more broadly, has risked the sort of escalation that Congress was concerned would impinge on its war-making power," the official said.
The White House also warned Congress against questioning the U.S. commitment at a time when Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi may be on his way out. "Now is not the time to send mixed messages," said spokesman Jay Carney.
The White House report also said the U.S. has spent $716 million through June 3 on bombs and other supplies since helping launch the allied air campaign on March 19, a cost expected to rise to $1.1 billion by Sept. 30. Aides said the money would come from other appropriated funds and would not require a new appropriation from Congress this year.
It was unclear how the memo would impact the debate in Congress over the military campaign.
"The creative arguments made by the White House raise a number of questions that must be further explored," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
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"Regardless, the commander-in-chief has a responsibility to articulate how U.S. military action is vital to our national security and consistent with American policy goals. With Libya, the president has fallen short on this obligation. We will review the information that was provided today, but hope and expect that this will serve as the beginning, not the end, of the president's explanation for continued American operations in Libya."
The lawmakers who filed suit maintained that a president cannot "unilaterally go to war in Libya and other countries" without a formal declaration of war from Congress. Their suit also maintains that a president cannot commit this country to a war "under the authority of the United Nations without authorization from Congress."
And, it said, the White House cannot use previously allocated federal funds for "an unconstitutional and unauthorized war in Libya or other countries."
Beyond Kucinich, House members filing the suit included Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., Howard Coble, R-N.C., John Duncan, R-Tenn., Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., John Conyers, D-Mich., Ron Paul, R-Texas, Michael Capuano, D-Mass., Tim Johnson, R-Ill., and Dan Burton, R-Ind.
Under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, Obama is required to consult with Congress before acting. He did inform lawmakers of his Libya decision on March 18, the day before the mission began. Under the resolution, Congress must approve any military action within 60 to 90 days, or it's canceled. The 60th day came and went last month, but the Libya mission continues.
The lawmakers' lawsuit isn't likely to succeed, according to Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
He noted that similar lawsuits during the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton presidencies were dismissed by the same court, and that the court is bound by those precedents. A key reason, he said, is that Congress already has the power to stop financing military action.
Kucinich earlier led an unsuccessful effort to get the House to call for a U.S. pullout from NATO's Libya operation within 15 days of passage; it failed by 265-148 on June 3, with 87 Republicans and 60 other Democrats supporting Kucinich.
Instead, the House passed a diluted measure, backed by Boehner, giving Obama until Friday to justify his Libya decision.
Boehner's resolution warned the White House that Congress "has the constitutional prerogative to withhold funding for any unauthorized use of the United States Armed Forces, including for unauthorized activities regarding Libya."
The Senate, where lawmakers from both parties have also expressed qualms about the White House action in Libya, has delayed an anticipated debate, awaiting the report Boehner's resolution requires.