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Fisher: Senate Should Protect War Powers on Libya

On June 3, the House of Representatives debated and voted on two resolutions that criticized President Barack Obama for not seeking legislative authorization for the war in Libya. Again on June 24, the House debated two other measures that rebuked Obama. The Senate has yet to take any floor action, although on June 28 the Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on “Libya and War Powers.”

The difference between the two chambers is remarkable. Because of its constitutional role with treaties and the appointment of ambassadors, the Senate supposedly has a more prominent role in foreign affairs than the House. But the House came to the floor first on this war powers issue and its resolutions are significantly stronger in terms of defending legislative interests than the rival Senate bills that have been introduced but not yet acted upon.

Democrats and Republicans in the House strongly object to Obama’s failure to seek authorization for the military action in Libya from Congress. The first June 3 resolution, introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) with Republican cosponsors, directed the removal of U.S. armed forces from Libya within 15 days of the resolution’s adoption. It failed 148-265. Introduced as a concurrent resolution, it would not have been legally binding. At most, it would have expressed the sentiments of the two chambers.

The second House resolution was introduced by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and adopted 268-145. It noted that President Obama “failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale” for military activities in Libya and directed Obama within 14 days to describe “in detail” U.S. security interests and objectives in Libya and explain why he did not seek “authorization by Congress for the use of military force in Libya.”

As a House resolution, Boehner’s measure offered only the sentiments of that chamber and had no legal force. However, it would have been politically costly for President Obama to ignore it. Many House Members from both parties believe he has acted contemptuously toward the legislative branch. Obama submitted his letter and accompanying report to Boehner on June 15.

Boehner’s resolution concluded: “Congress has the constitutional prerogative to withhold funding for any unauthorized use of the United States Armed Forces, including for unauthorized activities regarding Libya.” A competing Senate measure, S.Res. 194, was far more deferential to presidential power and executive control over the war power. It expressed no concern about the lack of Congressional authorization for the war in Libya. Instead, it merely requested Obama “to consult regularly with Congress regarding United States efforts in Libya.”

The framers did not expect the president to merely “consult” with lawmakers when taking the country from a state of peace to a state of war. The president needed either a formal declaration of war or statutory authorization.

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