Updated, 6:10 p.m.
Senators John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) and five other senators have formally introduced a resolution that would support “the limited use of military force” by President Obama in Libya.
Also Monday, another prominent senator, Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations committee, wrote a letter to Obama, criticizing him for not seeking Congressional permission. “I urge you to take the necessary steps to ensure that your Administration fulfills its commitment, and its Constitutional duties, to respect the role of Congress,” Lugar wrote.
And Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) announced that he was introducing another resolution, this one demanding that Obama stop operations in Libya altogether.
All these moves seem to be the beginning of a debate that neither the White House nor congressional leaders appear to want: does Obama need explicit permission from Capitol Hill to continue airstrikes in Libya? And, if he does, is a divided Congress prepared to give it?
The resolution from Kerry and McCain comes three days after Obama missed a legal deadline, set by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, to obtain congressional authorization for the operation in Libya. Obama had formally notified Congress on March 21 that U.S. forces were joining an international coalition to attack government targets in Libya, and the law required he obtain permission within 60 days.
He didn’t get it. Instead, in a letter to Congress on Friday, Obama urged the passage of this resolution--which, at that point, was still being drafted. The final version, released Monday, does not explicitly invoke the War Powers Resolution.
Instead, it says that Congress supports the use of force by the American military, as part of a NATO effort to enforce a United Nations Security Council resolution. The U.N. resolution was intended to protect civilians from attacks by the forces of Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi.
The resolution also says that the Senate “agrees that the goal of United States...is to achieve the departure from power of Muammar Qaddafi and his family.” And it requires that Obama submit “a description of United States policy objectives in Libya, both during and after Qaddafi’s rule, and a detailed plan to achieve them.”
This resolution still has to pass the Senate, where some conservatives have questioned Obama’s use of force in Libya.
McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said the White House had no input in the drafting of the legislation. But the resolution would certainly fit the strategy that Obama appears to be following: he has solicited the support of Congress, without explicitly admitting he’s required to have it.
Presidents before him have insisted the War Powers Resolution itself is unconstitutional, usurping some of the president’s authority as commander in chief.
“It looks like what [Obama] is doing is saying, ‘It would be nice if you did this. But I’m not saying that I have to have it,’” said Ronald Rotunda, a professor at Chapman University law school in California.
But Michael Glennon, a professor of international law at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said that the Senate resolution--as currently written--would not satisfy the letter of the law. He said the law is clear that, in order to satisfy the War Powers Resolution, the Kerry/McCain measure would have to use the words ‘War Powers Resolution.”
“Every time that Congress has approved the use of force since 1973, it’s used the magic words,” said Glennon, who was a Senate staffer when the War Powers Resolution was passed.
***Lugar has been one of the leading voices calling for Obama to abide by the War Powers Resolution. In his letter on Monday, he expressed concern that the administrations “commitments have...gone unfulfilled.” Lugar also said he was concerned by the changing nature of the Libyan campaign: once explicitly intended to protect civilians, he said it increasingly appeared aimed at weakening Gaffafi’s hold on power.
“There are serious costs to your Administration’s failure to appropriately engage Congress on these important matters,” Lugar wrote. “It has left the American people without a clear understanding of the U.S. interests at stake in Libya and how they relate to the other important challenges we currently face as a country.”
There is no resolution similar to the Senate one in the House. Kucinich, on the other hand, has filed one that uses authority from the War Powers Resolution to demand that U.S. armed forces be removed from Libya.***
In a briefing with reporters on Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he thought the use of force in Libya might be discussed during debate over a defense bill this week.
“We are going to have a robust amendment process,” Cantor said. Cantor said he thought issues related to the War Powers Resolution “will be discussed in the amendment process, and we will wait to see that unfold.”