Though it passed, 268 to 145, it had its critics. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he was “concerned about the puzzling, confusing, mystifying signal that we send by passing a resolution that affirms that the president has not fulfilled his constitutional or statutory obligations, yet offers no remedy, only a mild rebuke, followed by a questionnaire.”
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) described it as “an attack on the president, something most of the Republican caucus would vote against if its party was in control of the executive branch.” But, he added, “I am neither prepared to end our involvement unilaterally, as in the Kucinich amendment, nor do I believe Congress should officially declare our involvement in this effort that has not been properly explained by the president.”
What may turn out to be a good precedent, because neither the House nor the Senate has voted to authorize what the United States is doing in Libya, is what the House did on March 26. It passed, by 416 to 5, an amendment to the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization Bill that would prohibit deploying U.S. ground troops to Libya for any purpose other than to rescue fellow members of the U.S. armed forces.
Originally introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), also with bipartisan sponsorship, the amendment took up a pledge that Obama made when announcing the Libyan operation that he reiterated in a speech to the nation on March 28: “We would not put ground troops into Libya.”
In explaining his amendment, Conyers said, “My amendment does not oppose the president’s policy; it would simply enact his promise into law.” Conyers then explained his purpose was not to totally tie the president’s hands should the situation change. He said that if at some point U.S. ground troops were needed in Libya, the president “could come to the Congress and request an authorization for force, which if passed by both the House and Senate would overrule this provision.”
During the Vietnam War, a similar amendment was introduced by Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Fulbright’s panel had made public President Richard M. Nixon’s secret bombing in Laos. In return for allowing the bombing to continue, Nixon had said publicly that he would not send American ground troops into Laos or Thailand.
Using that pledge, Fulbright’s amendment became law, and was the first congressional initiative that limited the scope of the Vietnam War. Fulbright said that if necessity arose, Nixon could come to the Congress, explain what had changed and seek authorization for meeting the new situation. Like Conyers, he did not want to permanently tie a president’s hands.
I know because I worked for Fulbright at the time and with him and others wrote the Laos-Thailand amendment.