Some in Congress growing restive over U.S. involvement in Libya

WASHINGTON–Sen. Joseph Lieberman was among the most vocal proponents of U.S. military action in Libya. Rep. John Larson was one of the first to raise sharp questions about that mission.

As the Libyan conflict now stretches past the two-month mark, the two men agree on at least one thing: Congress needs to make its voice heard on this military undertaking.

This week Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, joined with six other senators to introduce a resolution supporting the “limited use” of U.S. military force in Libya, as part of the NATO mission. The measure goes further, saying the goal of U.S. policy in Libya should be to “achieve the departure from power of Muammar Qaddafi and his family.”

The resolution doesn’t say how Qaddafi should be ousted, but suggests it should include “the use of non-military means, so that a peaceful transition can begin.”

Lieberman said the aim of the resolution is simple. “It’ll allow us to make a unified statement that I hope will be part of encouraging the rebels, the freedom fighters in Libya, and saying to Qaddafi that the U.S. is together.”

Larson said he wasn’t sure how he’d vote on the measure, but he agreed it was time for Congress to assert itself on this issue.

To be sure, the Lieberman resolution also has a domestic political aim. The War Powers Act requires Congress to authorize any military action that goes on for more than 60 days. That deadline passed on Friday, amid growing complaints from lawmakers in both parties that President Barack Obama has not adequately consulted with Congress on Libya.

Last week, six Republican senators wrote to the president suggesting he was on the verge of violating the War Powers Act

“Friday is the final day of the statutory sixty-day period for you to terminate the use of the United States Armed Forces in Libya under the War Powers Resolution,” wrote Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and others.

“As recently as last week, your Administration indicated use of the United States Armed Forces will continue indefinitely,” the GOP letter says. “We are writing to ask whether you intend to comply with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution.”

In the House, Republicans have scheduled a hearing on Libya and the War Powers Act today in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The 60-day deadline has come and gone, and the President has yet to receive Congressional authorization for the war in Libya,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican who will be testifying at today’s hearing. “The President still refuses to acknowledge the role of Congress and is attempting to bend the War Powers Resolution to his liking.”

Rooney noted that the White House endorsed Lieberman and McCain’s efforts to draft a Libya resolution late last week, “at the 11th hour” before the 60-day deadline passed.

Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, who sits on the Foreign Affairs panel, said he wasn’t inclined to give the White House much wiggle room either.

“Now that we have passed that [60-day] marker, if the Administration wants to continue our involvement in Libya they need to present their case to Congress and we should have a full debate,” he said.

Larson said the brouhaha over the Libya points to the need for a broader debate, not limited to this conflict or to Lieberman’s resolution. He said it bothers him that Congress hasn’t weighed in on Libya and hasn’t exercised its authority to dictate when the U.S. goes to war.

The War Powers Act “needs to be revisited,” said Larson, a Democrat who represents Connecticut’s 1st Congressional District. “Beyond any individual resolution, this is a long overdue discussion and dialogue that needs to take place in this Congress and with the American people.”

Larson pointed to decades-old principles, such as the so-called Powell Doctrine, which says the U.S. should only go to war when its national security interests are threatened, an exit strategy has been mapped out, and the action has public support, among other things. Larson said the way military conflicts are waged, and the nature of threats against the U.S., have dramatically changed since then.

“So we have to adapt, but we haven’t,” he said. “Congress has really not taken what I believe are the steps needed to have a dialogue with the American public about the War Powers Act, detailing out what are the broad bright lines of authority that exist” for the legislative and the executive branches of government.

Other Connecticut lawmakers echoed that sentiment.

“One of the difficulties I had when the president took this decision [in Libya] was that for over 60 years now we’ve strayed away from the notion that Congress declares war,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District.  “I can’t help but think that if we move the nation back toward more congressional role in the declaration of war and a broader definition of war, we’d get into fewer wars… So I think the War Powers Act is something we need to go back to and look hard at.”

Himes said he hadn’t read Lieberman’s resolution yet so couldn’t say how he would vote. He said “the bright line” for him is no increase in the U.S.’s military involvement. “I fully support the objective of seeing Qaddafi go by one means or another,” he said. But “I do not want to see the U.S. role escalate.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he wasn’t sure congressional authorization for the Libya conflict was necessary. Courtney was among those who, at the beginning of the conflict, expressed alarm about “mission creep” in Libya.

But now, he said the U.S. role has decreased dramatically. “The military operation has almost dwindled to purely supportive measures,” he said. “Obviously, there’s no ground troops and it’s really not even naval or air involvement. So the Administration’s position, which is that level of military force is sporadic at best and doesn’t justify War Powers Act treatment, has some basis.”

Courtney said he would closely examine any resolution, “but this isn’t one of those instances where America is deeply engrossed in military operations with no congressional action.”

He noted that Congress held hearings in the days after U.S. air strikes were first launched.

“It wasn’t just a show,” Courtney said of those sessions, noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top officials “got a real strong blast of public opinion that we have to tread very carefully here about not getting sucked into another Middle Eastern ground war.”

That had a significant impact, Courtney argued, “and in many respects that’s more important than whether you have an up-or-down vote on somebody’s take of the day’s headlines.”

As for having a fresh debate over when and how the U.S. should launch a war, he said, those questions often are better answered on a case-by-case basis.

“I don’t know if anyone’s that smart to be able to, as a matter of statutory draftsmanship, come up with an all encompassing system of scenarios which would trigger automatic action,” he said. He said noted that Congress hasn’t declared war since World War II, and has “de facto” looked at each conflict individually to determine when congressional authorization is warranted.

Lieberman, for his part, said his resolution was in some ways “a  classic dance around the War Powers Act”–and one that Congress has performed for years.

“Presidents always say they don’t need consent. Members of Congress say yes you do. And usually there’s a way, without a specific request for authorization, for Congress to find a way to approve” whatever action a president has taken.

As for his Libya measure, a debate in the Senate could come as early as next week.