Is President Obama breaking the law in Libya?
Both the White House and congressional leaders appear eager to avoid that question — five days after Obama missed a legal deadline for obtaining Congress’s permission for military operations there.
But during a House hearing on Wednesday, legislators from both parties blasted Obama for appearing to disregard the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
Their criticism was the latest sign that Obama may not be able to avert a debate over the Nixon-era law — a key rule that spells out how America should go to war — simply by ignoring it.
“The undeniable conclusion is that the president is breaking the law by continuing the unilateral offensive war against Libya,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a conservative freshman testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Amash has proposed a bill that would cut off funding for U.S. efforts in Libya until Obama obtains congressional authorization.
“The tragedy, for our system of self-government, would be if Congress continued to do nothing,” he said.
Friday was the 60th day since Obama notified Congress that U.S. forces were joining in attacks on Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Under the War Powers Resolution, he was supposed to obtain Congress’s authorization by that point or stop the operation.
He did neither. Instead, Obama sent a letter to Congress urging that it pass a resolution of support. The Senate is considering such a resolution, but it won’t be voted on until after the week-long Memorial Day recess.
Other NATO members are conducting most of the airstrikes in Libya, while U.S. forces are flying the bulk of the missions related to reconnaissance, surveillance and refueling. In all, American aircraft account for about a quarter of the roughly 150 missions flown each day by NATO forces.
The White House and the Pentagon have said repeatedly that they will not deploy U.S. ground troops or trainers to Libya.
On Wednesday, Obama said NATO will continue to pressure Gaddafi with military attacks.
“I believe that we have built enough momentum that as long as we sustain the course that we are on that he is ultimately going to step down,” he said, speaking in London alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron.
On Capitol Hill, the Libyan operation has brought about a rare political moment. Republican and Democratic leaders, who agree on little else, seem united in their desire to not say much about the War Powers Resolution.
“We’ve had good discussions on Libya,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a news conference Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also was noncommittal: “Discussions continue.”
White House officials, too, have sought to play down the importance of the deadline. Asked whether the president still has the authority to continue operations in Libya, Obama spokesman Ben Rhodes did not mention the resolution specifically.
“I think we addressed that through the letter the president sent up to Congress at the end of last week, again reaffirming our ongoing efforts in Libya,” Rhodes said. “So we believe we have the authorities we need.”
But some legislators from both parties have begun to criticize the administration. In the Senate, they include a titan on foreign affairs — Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) — and a tea-party-influenced freshman, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
“I think you cross an important threshold the minute you’ve got your military carrying out military strikes on the soil of a foreign, sovereign country” without congressional approval, Lee said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “The longer it rolls on, the more likely it is to come to a head in the Senate.”
At the House hearing Wednesday, several lawmakers blasted Obama as ignoring the resolution — and, by extension, ignoring Congress.
“They won’t even acknowledge the 60th day . . . the day on which they began violating the law,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.). “The fault is also here with Congress. So many of us would like to evade the tough decisions.”
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) testified before the committee about his own proposed resolution, which would express the “sense of Congress” that Obama should seek explicit authorization for the operation in Libya.
“If you’re going to go to war and send our troops into harm’s way, you need us — and the American people — on board,” Rooney said, summing up the idea behind the War Powers Resolution. “What we’re asking for is simple — that the president respect our role.”
Almost since the War Powers Resolution was passed, presidents have been trying to ignore it. Ronald Reagan missed the 60-day deadline when he sent Marines into Lebanon in the 1980s, and Bill Clinton missed it when he ordered airstrikes in Yugoslavia in 1999.
But scholars said Obama has gone further — by doing less.
Other presidents made arguments about why the deadline shouldn’t apply to them, often saying that the law is an unconstitutional limit on the commander in chief.
Obama has not done even that.
“President Obama has clearly violated the letter of the law. And nobody’s really jumping up and down that much,” said Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University.
Obama’s lack of response, Spiro said, “does take this final step of not even bothering to go through the motions.”
Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.