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Senators Struggle to Influence Libyan Conflict

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Bob Corker voted against a Foreign Relations Committee resolution offering limited Congressional approval for U.S. involvement in Libya.

Senators already divided on how to deal with U.S. involvement in Libya found themselves facing a no-win situation Tuesday: The more they struggle to be relevant on the issue, the more they highlight the futility of their fight.

The White House has asserted that President Barack Obama doesn’t need Congressional approval for the NATO-led assault against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. The House already sent mixed signals Friday by failing to either authorize or defund the Libyan mission. And Senators — especially on the Foreign Relations Committee, where Members spent hours Tuesday sparring over the Libya mission — still can’t agree on what exactly is required of them.

“I have no idea why we would pass something out of Foreign Relations,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “It’s like Congress is over here and the president has basically said, ‘Well, we can define it this way, therefore your weighing in is irrelevant unless you just want to stop it.’ And Congress is saying, ‘No, no, no! We want to be relevant. We want to be relevant! And therefore, we’re just going to pass something that supports what you’re doing.’”

In what Corker described as the “first real markup we’ve had in Foreign Relations” in four years, the panel approved, 14-5, a resolution co-sponsored by Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would give limited approval to the U.S. campaign in Libya. The vote came only after Kerry postponed several previously scheduled markups so he and McCain could drum up support.

But serious questions remain over the resolution’s fate in the Senate. Immediately after it was approved by the panel, Kerry said only that he “hoped” it would get a vote on the floor. A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate will not vote on the resolution before the July Fourth recess.

In a morning hearing, Kerry defended the White House and State Department adviser Harold Koh from what he called needless “dart throwing.” He said it wasn’t the president’s fault that the Libyan mission is not authorized but that the responsibility fell upon Congressional leaders, who at the time of the War Powers Act deadline were “unwilling” to bring legislation to the floor. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) corroborated that account, saying of the Libya conflict, “The initial signal from both sides of the rotunda was, ‘Don’t touch it.’”

But it was unclear Tuesday whether the overall will of the Senate has changed since early spring, especially in light of the divided House vote that revealed deep fissures across both parties and in both chambers.

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