June 21st, 2011
01:51 PM ET

Growing divide in Congress over Libya campaign

Two influential U.S. senators introduced a resolution Tuesday expressing support for limited American involvement in the NATO-led military campaign in Libya - part of an effort to counter rising pressure in the House of Representatives to withdraw backing for the mission.

The resolution, introduced by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Arizona Republican John McCain, authorizes the commitment of U.S. forces for one year while stressing the lack of support for any use of American ground troops.

"I believe the president did the right thing by intervening to stop a looming humanitarian disaster," McCain said. "I believe we will find a strong, bipartisan majority that is in favor of authorizing our current military operations in Libya and seeing this mission through to success."

Kerry added, "By supporting this resolution, we tell Arabs young and old that the United States is willing to make tough decisions and spend our tax dollars to help ensure your freedom."

The allied military effort, which already has formal U.N. support, was launched to protect Libyan civilians from violence stemming from a crackdown launched by the North African country's longtime ruler, Moammar Gadhafi. Western leaders have made clear, however, that they believe the mission cannot be successfully completed without Gadhafi's removal.

The Obama administration has already promised not to use U.S. ground troops, but bipartian congressional opposition to the military campaign has been mounting. An unusual coalition has been forming between traditionally anti-war Democrats and Republicans worried about the cost of the conflict and skeptical of its national security importance.

Support for the war has also been shaken by evidence presented by Gadhafi's government of several noncombatant deaths caused by recent NATO airstrikes. NATO officials admitted over the weekend that aircraft from countries in the alliance recently mistakenly struck vehicles aligned with the Libyan opposition.

In addition, critics have blasted the administration for failing to seek a vote of congressional approval before the start of the campaign. A vote, they contend, was required by the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The law gives the president 60 days to get congressional approval for sending U.S. forces to war, followed by a 30-day extension to end hostilities.

The combined 90-day period ended Sunday.

The White House argues the president didn't need congressional authorization because U.S. forces are playing only a supporting role in Libya and haven't engaged in what the law defines as hostilities. Obama, however, personally overruled contrary legal opinions put forward by both the Pentagon and the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, according to a Saturday report in The New York Times.

McCain has expressed anger that the White House didn't push for an earlier congressional vote on the war. The senator, who ran against Obama in 2008, contends a resolution of support would have passed easily when NATO first intervened.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, have resisted holding a vote on the war because of divisions within their respective caucuses.

"The administration's disregard for the elected representatives of the American people on this matter has been troubling and counterproductive," McCain said Tuesday. "The unfortunate result of this failure of leadership is plain to see in the full-scale revolt ... that is occurring in the House of Representatives."

House Republican sources said Monday that several possible measures may be voted on this week - most likely Thursday.

One idea is to hold a vote on a measure prohibiting funding for any ground troops in Libya. The sources said the proposal would be intended to prevent any possible escalation in the mission and give legislators a chance to express their disapproval.

The House already is also planning to take up the 2012 defense spending bill this week. Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, intends to propose an amendment cutting off funding for the mission.

According to the sources, separate votes on the Libya mission are likely before the defense bill comes up to allow legislators to signal their displeasure through legislation that doesn't go as far as Kucinich's proposal.

To prevent a similar resolution from Kucinich from passing earlier, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pushed through a resolution giving the president two weeks to send Congress information justifying the U.S. strategy in Libya.

Obama responded with a 32-page report arguing in part that he has not violated the War Powers Resolution.

Even if the Republican-controlled House passes measures intended to limit funding for the Libya mission, it is unlikely the Senate would do the same.

"The president's done a lousy job of communicating and managing our involvement in Libya, but I will be no part of an effort to defund Libya or to try to cut off our efforts to bring Gadhafi down," conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

Obama "needs to step up his game with Libya, but Congress should sort of shut up and not empower Gadhafi," Graham argued.

In March, the Senate unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution supporting the no-fly zone over Libya. Some Republicans, however, have now expressed opposition to that effort, citing growing concerns about its cost.

In its report on the mission, the administration said the cost of military and humanitarian operations through June 3 was about $800 million. It estimated the total cost through September 30 would be $1.1 billion.

Questions about the war's financial and other costs have also been raised in the United Kingdom, which has played a leading role in the NATO effort.

British Prime Minister David Cameron insists that Britain's military involvement in the North African country can continue "as long as we need."

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