House Republicans took the first concrete steps Friday toward a fundamental shift in the party’s war and military policy.
On issues ranging from military spending to trade to the country’s relationship with China, GOP Members have demonstrated an increasingly nuanced worldview that breaks the stereotypes of Republicans as fierce hawks with an isolationist streak.
That evolution was on full display Friday in the broad GOP support not only for a leadership-backed resolution questioning U.S. involvement in the NATO-led Libya campaign, but also for a far more aggressive measure authored by anti-war advocate Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
While GOP hawks banded together against both measures, they are an increasingly smaller part of the Conference — as evidenced by the strong 268-145 vote in support of the leadership proposal authored by Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican’s measure called on the president to present Congress with his justification for continued U.S. airstrikes in Libya within 14 days, but 87 Republicans also voted for Kucinich’s proposal to force the U.S to end those actions in 15 days.
The question of how much our foreign efforts cost has weighed increasingly heavily on the GOP, and that has been most obvious in how they have approached President Barack Obama’s March decision to participate in the Libyan conflict, which has evolved into a civil war.
Republicans have often been loath to be seen as not supporting troops or the efforts of the U.S. once it has become engaged in a military action. But with the deficit skyrocketing and the White House moving into a third war under what the GOP sees as questionable circumstances, they now find themselves with reservations about that role.
“I’ve got 22 years in the military so the thing I look for: What’s my mission, what’s my goal, what’s my objective, what’s my instinct? And I don’t have that here,” freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said.
“And what I’m starting to see here is this very incessant mission creep. And that concerns me, because when I look back at the history of warfare, that’s really how you lose fighting battles,” West continued. He bluntly added that the White House has been cavalier in handling its constitutional duty to make the case for its actions to Congress.
“Giving a speech before national television is not making the case to us. ... I believe there is a bit of belligerence there now, that he’s totally disregarding us,” West said. Under the War Powers Act, the president is supposed to ask for Congress’ approval for military campaigns that last longer than 60 days. The White House sent Congress a letter on day 60 of the Libya conflict, which was originally conceived to protect civilians and protesters from attacks by Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
GOP lawmakers said the party’s shift is not likely to go away anytime soon. When asked if he was surprised so many of his colleagues have come out against the Libyan campaign, anti-war Republican Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.) said, “No, I’m really not. I think it’s a constitutional concern on the part of my colleagues.”
House leaders acknowledged the shift as well.
“I think there is a growing awareness that, No. 1, we are in a very connected global economy and the economic relationships this country is now involved in in an international way are real,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said Thursday in an interview with Roll Call.
“We’ve got a heavy burden because of the increased complexity, and we really believe that there’s a role for leadership for America to play that doesn’t mean interjecting in every conflict, but it does mean making sure that we are out there protecting the U.S. security interests, which are worldwide,” he said.
On issues like trade and China, Cantor acknowledged his Conference has begun to leave behind the bombastic sort of approach that led to previous episodes, such as the famous renaming of French fries as “freedom fries” in 2003 because of France’s opposition to the war in Iraq.
“I do think there is a sense among our Conference [that] America has a role to play in the world. We’re not the ones to have to pay for everybody’s problem, but certainly because we are so interconnected internationally, we are going to have to grow and protect our interests, which it requires us to engage internationally,” Cantor said.
Top Republicans in the House also have already begun to discuss their next steps on Libya. Rep. Steven LaTourette said the Speaker had already begun discussing what to do after his resolution passed before it came to the floor.
The Ohio Republican, who is close to Boehner, noted that in addition to the Conference meeting Thursday, the Steering Committee and “Team Boehner” also met and discussed the Libya issue.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations,” LaTourette said, but he would not disclose what action House Republicans are planning to take in the coming weeks.
“I think our candid hope is that the president gets us the stuff in 14 days,” he said.
Freshman Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said there are a “number of ideas” about how House Republicans should proceed.
“The bottom line is this president needs to account for his activities in Libya to provide a clear plan and path forward both to victory as well as withdrawal,” Gardner said.
According to a senior GOP aide, the most likely option is to use the Defense appropriations measure to force the administration’s hand on Libya. In fact, it appears Boehner may have had that solution in mind when he drafted the resolution: The House is expected to take up the spending measure in two weeks, the same amount of time Obama has to provide a justification for the war.