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Rising Conflict on Libya

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Sen. John McCain is working on a resolution of support for U.S. involvement in Libya but has so far had trouble rounding up votes.

Members of Congress blame President Barack Obama for inviting a constitutional confrontation over Libya, saying the president completely mishandled the politics of the issue.

Though the White House tried Wednesday to tamp down concerns that it had not gotten Congress' approval for the continuing military intervention in Libya, irritation on Capitol Hill reached a fever pitch. A bipartisan group of House Members filed a lawsuit against Obama, asserting the administration is flouting the constitutional separation of powers and the War Powers Act. Others wondered whether the administration's report on the military's effort in the troubled North African region would satisfy Congress' demands for a robust justification of the use of U.S. resources, and one Democratic lawmaker accused Obama of wasting precious time that could have been used to build support for the NATO-led effort.

Republican Rep. Steve King said Obama "has done a terrible job of communicating with Congress" on Libya. But the Iowa Republican also noted that Members are in a difficult position because bringing up a resolution to effectively end the Libyan effort could jeopardize U.S. relations with NATO allies and send the wrong message to nations abroad.

"I'm concerned about sending the wrong message, not just to the NATO allies but to the enemies, because when they see division in our camp, it encourages them, and that costs American lives," King said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney echoed that sentiment Wednesday.

"Now is not the time to send mixed messages as we've had the success that we've had in that mission," he said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said House leaders gave Obama time to repair the problem when on June 3 they passed Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) nonbinding resolution calling on the president to provide a justification for participating in NATO-led air strikes intended to enforce a no-fly zone and an arms embargo. The resolution gave Obama two weeks to comply with the request.

"Frankly, the Boehner resolution bought the president time; that time seems to have been squandered, and that's most unfortunate," Connolly said.

Boehner, purposely or not, also did the president a favor by giving his Members an alternative to a resolution by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that might have caused an international incident because it called for the U.S. military to end its engagement in Libya within 15 days. Given bipartisan support for Kucinich at the time, his proposal stood a good chance of passing.

But a frustrated Boehner fired off a letter to the White House, warning Obama that he risked violating the War Powers Act if he didn't give legal justification by Sunday. Boehner's letter represented the harshest criticism of the administration's Libya policy to date, but Kucinich and a bipartisan group of nine other lawmakers took it a step further Wednesday by filing lawsuit asserting that the administration does not have Congress' approval to continue engaging in the Libyan conflict.

From the steps of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Kucinich cited Congress' constitutional authority to declare war and Obama's failure to meet the requirements of the War Powers Act. He argued the lawsuit is aimed at protecting "our nation from policies where any president decides to declare war unilaterally" and dismissed arguments that the Libyan effort is a NATO action that does not need approval.

"Neither NATO nor the [United Nations] trumps the Unites States Constitution," the one-time presidential candidate said.

On Wednesday night, the White House sent Congress a report arguing that the U.S. had moved to a support role in Libya and that the absence of ground troops meant no Congressional approval was needed.

But reaction was swift and negative.

"Unfortunately, a progress report from the White House is no substitute for congressional authorization," Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said in a statement.

The U.S. and NATO launched the campaign in response to concerns that Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was attacking unarmed civilians and protesters. Administration officials have maintained the White House has briefed lawmakers on the situation and acted in accordance with the War Powers Act.

The War Powers Act requires the administration to request Congressional approval for major, ongoing military action within 60 days and remove troops from the theater in 90 days if approval is not granted. The first deadline passed in May; the second deadline is fast approaching.

"'I think that we have been acting consistent with the War Powers resolution. We will continue the mission," Carney told reporters Wednesday.

It remains unclear what legislative tact the House will take following the release of the administration's report, but in a statement, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, "The Speaker has been clear: If the Administration fails to meet its obligations, then Congress will act."

Libya has not only cost Obama support on Capitol Hill, it is an unpopular issue among Americans, according to recent polling. Findings from a Rasmussen telephone survey released Monday show just 26 percent of likely voters think U.S. military efforts in Libya should continue, while 42 percent are opposed. Additionally, nearly six in 10 of those surveyed agree the president needs Congress' approval to continue military efforts.

In the Senate, Obama's lack of communication has led to a Libya policy defined by paralysis. The Foreign Relations Committee for the second consecutive week canceled a markup of a resolution of approval being authored by panel Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Majority Leader Harry Reid, when asked whether the Senate should weigh in on Libya, said he was still "waiting" for the Foreign Relations Committee to act.

McCain suggested the matter was in Reid's hands, although he conceded he and Kerry were still tweaking their resolution in an effort to gather support.

Unlike the House, the Senate has not addressed the issue on the floor, and some maintain it's a lost cause to weigh in now.

"I think it's too late already. We should have [acted] a long time ago. We're irrelevant, and it's become a moot point," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who serves on the Foreign Relations panel and is closely allied with the Obama administration, said other issues were contributing to the disagreement over Libya.

"There are some that want this to be kind of a proxy debate for Iraq and Afghanistan," the Illinois Democrat said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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