Hoping to head off growing insurgencies in both major parties over Washington’s participation in NATO’s military campaign against Libya, two key senators Tuesday unveiled a resolution that would give President Barack Obama the authority to continue operations there for up to one year.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who also serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential candidate, said their measure would authorise "the limited use of the United States Armed Forces in Libya, in support of United States national security policy interests."
The resolution was cosponsored by several senior senators from each party, notably Majority Whip Dick Durbin and the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, as well as several prominent Republican hawks, including Lindsey Graham and John Kyl.
The White House said it welcomed the resolution.
"[W]e support that and would welcome passage of it by the Senate, and, if it were taken up in the House [of Representatives], by the House as well," said Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney.
The resolution – the product of weeks of negotiations – comes amid growing controversy within both parties about Washington’s continued involvement in three ongoing wars.
That controversy was further fuelled last week by the Obama administration’s much-disputed contention that U.S. military operations were not significant enough to require Congressional authorisation under the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
It also comes on the eve of a much-anticipated announcement on the timing and pace of Washington’s withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan – which Obama promised would begin next month.
That decision, which Obama is expected to announce in a nationally televised speech Wednesday evening, has also provoked growing controversy within both parties.
Democrats, who were never enthusiastic about Obama’s decision to substantially increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan, generally favour an accelerated withdrawal of the 100,000 U.S. troops currently deployed there. Republicans are increasingly split between hawks – such as McCain, Graham, and Kyl – who are urging a slow drawdown, and a fast-growing coalition of ‘realists’, fiscal conservatives, and ‘isolationists’ in the party’s Congressional caucus, who are increasingly allying themselves with their colleagues across the aisle on both Afghanistan and Libya.
The latter forces are particularly strong in the House, which could take up several proposed resolutions this week that – if enacted – would limit the president’s ability to use appropriated funds to continue the military operations in or over Libya. Those operations, which are estimated to cost about 10 million dollars a day, consist mainly of aerial surveillance, refuelling costs, and logistical support, but also include drone strikes and occasional piloted aircraft strikes.
One resolution, co-sponsored by anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Walter Jones, would cut off all funding for Libya operations. Earlier this month, another measure sponsored by the two lawmakers would have cut all funding after 15 days unless Obama received Congressional authorisation to continue operations. Despite strong Republican backing, it was defeated 148-265, but only because the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, offered a substitute resolution reproaching Obama for not seeking Congressional authorisation under the War Powers Resolution, that passed easily with bipartisan support.
The Kerry-McCain measure is clearly designed to settle the War Powers issue and thus stave off additional legislative challenges to the Libya operation at a time when war fatigue appears to be growing rapidly in Congress and within the public at large, most notably among Republicans.
Originally approved by Congress over President Richard Nixon’s veto, the War Powers Resolution was designed to end the decade-long U.S. military intervention in Vietnam and establish curbs on the executive branch’s ability to engage U.S. forces in conflicts abroad without seeking Congressional authorisation or a declaration of war.
The act requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of introducing U.S. forces into imminent or ongoing "hostilities". It also requires him to end operations within 60 to 90 days unless Congress gives him the authority to continue, or extends the deadline. In the Libya case, the 90-day period ended Sunday.
Until now, every president, beginning with Nixon himself, has argued that the act is unconstitutional because it infringes on the president’s authority as ‘Commander-in-Chief’. At the same time, however, they have respected the law’s notification requirements. The courts, where conflicts between the legislative and executive branches are supposed to be resolved, have consistently avoided ruling on the constitutional question.
Obama has also ducked the constitutional issue, contending instead, as he did in a 38-page report submitted to Congress last week, that the resolution did not apply because Washington’s intervention in Libya does "not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops".
That argument, however, convinced almost nobody, and may indeed have backfired against the president.
"It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test… that we’re not in the midst of hostilities," Boehner, who has supported the Libya campaign, said after the report was submitted, while Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate and one of Obama’s closest allies in Congress, felt compelled to part ways with the president.
Obama’s position was further weakened by the disclosure in the ‘New York Times’ that both the normally authoritative Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department and the Pentagon’s top lawyers also disagreed with the report’s contentions.
As the controversy intensified over the following days, it appears that Kerry and McCain, who had been trying to draft a resolution that could gain overwhelming support in both houses of Congress since shortly after the Libya campaign began three months ago, renewed their efforts.
"The Senate has been silent for too long on U.S. military operations in Libya," McCain said Tuesday. "It is time for the Senate to act. It is time to authorise the President’s use of force, whether he thinks he needs it or not."
The resolution authorises the deployment of U.S. armed forces "as part of the NATO mission to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973", which authorises "all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack" in Libya for up to one year.
That is "more than enough time to finish the job," McCain told reporters. The resolution noted that Washington’s goal is to "achieve the departure from power of Muammar Qaddafi and his family", although it did not explicitly authorise the use of military power to accomplish that end.
The resolution also states that the Congress opposes the deployment of ground troops in Libya "unless the purpose of the presence is limited to the immediate personal defense of United States Government officials or to rescuing members of NATO forces from imminent danger".
The resolution is almost certain to enjoy strong support in the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that it would be put on a fast track. The House, however, could be more problematic. While the number two Democrat there, Representative Steny Hoyer, said he would support the resolution, Boehner and other members of the Republican leadership were non-committal Tuesday.