U.S. Congress remains in dark over Libya

By RICHARD TOMKINS  |  May 23, 2011 at 12:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) -- U.S. military participation in NATO's ongoing campaign to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is in a third month but Capitol Hill remains largely in the dark and on the sidelines.

Neither the U.S. House of Representatives nor the U.S. Senate has forcefully pressed for imposition of the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

Obama administration witnesses before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have either engaged in what U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., called "government gobbledygook" or failed to appear.

And U.S. President Barak Obama, while sending two letters to senior congressional leaders on his actions and the campaign in Libya -- "consistent" with requirements of the War Powers Resolution -- hasn't explicitly acknowledged that the law applies to Operation Odyssey Dawn.

"I don't know what we are going to do about the War Powers Act," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on "Fox News Sunday. " "The administration is going to have to decide whether it thinks it (a mandated timeline to seek congressional approval) was triggered and we'll have to respond to that.

"And, frankly, it's a bit confusing now and we'd like to see the administration clear it up."

The War Powers Resolution (the initial Senate version referred to as an "act") was passed in 1973 over the veto of President Richard Nixon. Its purpose was to limit a president's authority to place U.S. armed forces in hostilities without a declaration of war by Congress but still leave the president leeway to respond to attacks on U.S. forces, pressing threats to national security and other emergencies as commander in chief.

Virtually every president since its passage has opposed the measure as unconstitutional. But, the Congressional Research Service says, 111 reports were nonetheless submitted to Congress from 1975 through 2003. Most were submitted after short-duration military operations and thus no congressional resolution of support was required.

President Bill Clinton, in his use of force in Kosovo, skirted the issue of a formal resolution by obtaining special operational funding, which he maintained constituted congressional assent for military action.

A provision of the War Powers Resolution -- 4 (a)(1) -- requires a president to inform Congress of a military action under the act within 48 hours of its occurrence and again at the 60-day mark. If no congressional resolution is passed within those 60 days, military operations must end within the next 30 days.

Whether that timetable on U.S. participation in NATO's Libya air operations is in force is subject to question and interpretation.

Obama, in making his two reports to congressional leaders, said they were done so "consistent" with the War Powers Resolution. At no time did he mention the provision that triggers the 60-90 day timetable. The "consistent" usage was in line with that of other presidents.

In a letter Saturday, he also noted U.S. participation was reduced to "precision strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles against a limited set of clearly defined targets in support of the NATO-led coalition's efforts," implying no formal congressional approval in line with the resolution is needed.

"It's not as if he is the first president who has put it (the resolution) on the back burner, ignored it or pretended it doesn't exist," Stephen Hess, a senior fellow and presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution said. "So, in a sense, there's enough precedent for not following the law as there is for following the law."

Hess said that with battles over the budget, the debt ceiling and other pressing domestic issues, he doesn't expect the issue to result in much more than raised rhetoric at the moment.

Operation Odyssey Dawn, as the Pentagon calls it, began March 19 to support a U.N. resolution that calls for the protection of Libyan anti-regime demonstrators and rebel forces from Gadhafi's security forces. Obama, in announcing military action against Gadhafi, cited the U.N. resolution his administration had lobbied for as its justification.

NATO and U.S. operations were to only last weeks and were in U.S. national interests and would help spread democracy in North Africa, Obama said.

As weeks become months, questions remain on Capitol Hill as to the rationale for committing U.S. forces to a new conflict in the Muslim world, its monetary costs, the full extent of U.S. operations and the endgame.

The Pentagon said in early May that military operations against Libya had cost about $750 million -- money that is coming out of the Department of Defense's general budget.

A Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, said it was estimated in April that at the current level of operations, the cost of ships, aircraft, munitions and other costs to push Gadhafi from power would be $40 million a month.

About a half-dozen Republicans in the Senate -- noting administration signals that the operation could continue indefinitely -- sent Obama a letter requesting answers. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is to meet Wednesday to try to determine if an explicit resolution supporting U.S. military action in support of NATO's bombing campaign in Libya is needed.

But don't count on administration officials providing the House committee with testimony. Only House members have so far been appeared on the witness list.

"We're in limbo," Mark Helmke, spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said after the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Marines Gen. James Cartwright canceled his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We're left with unanswered questions, a lot of unanswered questions."

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