As the United States joins an international coalition in launching strikes on Libya, several members of Congress are pushing for a greater debate on the U.S. military role there, with some saying they feel the White House overstepped its bounds by not seeking formal congressional approval of military action.
In response to concerns from some of their caucus members, House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) and Vice-Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) hosted a conference call Saturday during which rank-and-file House Democrats discussed the developments in Libya and asked questions of members who had attended a closed-door White House meeting a day earlier.
“With the rapid pace of events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Libya, the members wanted a chance to hear from their colleagues who had talked to the White House as soon as possible, and there was a wide range of questions addressed,” Larson spokesman Ellis Brachman said of the Saturday afternoon call.
Several dozen House Democrats were on the call, which lasted over an hour, according to a Democratic aide. Many members expressed support for Obama’s position on the conflict, noting that there would be no U.S. boots on the ground in Libya and that the situation is a humanitarian crisis, the aide said. At the same time, some members raised questions about whether Congress should pass a resolution authorizing action, according to one senior Democratic aide; another source with knowledge of the call said there was a “broad belief” among House Democrats that Congress has a role in such decisions that has been disregarded.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been invited but was unable to make it on the call as she was traveling in Afghanistan.
Following President Obama’s Friday announcement that the U.S. would take part in the military intervention, several House Democrats have issued statements of concern about what they said was the lack of congressional input in the decision-making process.
Larson was among the first members -- and is thus far the highest-ranking lawmaker -- to issue a statement calling on the president to consult with Congress before taking military action in Libya and suggesting the possibility of members cutting short their week-long recess in order to have a full debate on the conflict.
“Given our current fiscal constraints, and our military’s current responsibilities, this truly deserves a robust debate before we commit our young men and women in uniform,” Larson said Friday. “If that means calling members of Congress back from the District work period for a joint session, then that’s what we should do. It is imperative that Members of Congress, as the direct representatives of our constituents, have the opportunity to weigh in before decisions are made.”
In addition, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Friday night that “it will be critical for the administration to keep Congress closely informed” as it makes decisions on Libya.
Several liberal Democrats have also criticized the White House’s action. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) penned a letter on Friday urging House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to call Congress back into session next week to debate an authorization of military force; Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) called on Obama to seek congressional approval; and Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) said Saturday that the United Nations “does not have the right to have the U.S. enter into military action.”
Aside from Larson, most other members of congressional leadership have not yet weighed in on the issue of congressional authority. Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have all issued statements backing Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya, but none of the three made any mention of Congress’ role in the decision-making process.
Among Republicans, the highest-profile advocate for a congressional role on Libya has been Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Early last week, Lugar said that any U.S. involvement in the imposition of a no-fly zone would need to be preceded by a formal declaration of war; he also said it was “doubtful” a no-fly zone would serve U.S. interests and urged that the Arab League should pay for any such move.
On Saturday, Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke said that Lugar “supports our troops in action” but still wants to see stepped-up congressional involvement.
“He still believes this action requires greater congressional debate: Where is it going? What is the end game? How much will it cost? Who’s going to pay? The nation is in the middle of another three-week [funding measure]. What do these new obligations mean?” Helmke said.
Another congressional Republican who has been vocal in calling for congressional approval on Libya has been Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who last week introduced a resolution “expressing the sense of Congress” that the president “is required to obtain in advance specific statutory authorization for the use of United States Armed Forces in response to civil unrest in Libya.”
So far, the resolution has garnered only a handful of co-sponsors, including five Democrats and two Republicans.