Tuesday, June 21, 2011 | 11:30 a.m.
The United States' involvement in NATO’s Libya offensive has been the subject of fierce debate since it began, and now that the president’s authority to commit the troops appears to have run out, it’s also inspired a fierce Congressional divide.
The drive to force the president to pull U.S. troops out of Libya is being led by Nevada Rep. Joe Heck.
Heck, a Republican, is pushing a bill that seeks to end the war by cutting off funding for everything short of pulling out of Libya. Ohio’s Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat and one of the most liberal voices in the Congress, is in near lock-step, with an amendment to cut off funding entirely.
It’s a classic exercising of the House of Representatives’ power of the purse: a constitutional last resort of sorts that would allow Congress to stop a military offensive by stopping its financing.
“To date, there has been no clear national security objective articulated,” Heck said of the Libya in the statement he released announcing his amendment. “Without a clear national security imperative, we cannot afford the cost in troops, or taxpayer dollars. Congress must insist President Obama abide by the law and either articulate a clear US national security imperative for our military action in Libya, or end operations there.”
Obama sent the first U.S. planes to Libya in March to support the fight against Libya’s longtime dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, which is being carried by rebel fighters in what’s proved to be one of the most challenging uprisings in the Arab Spring. The idea was that with air cover from the United States and NATO, the Libyan rebels would stand a better chance at marching on Tripoli and unseating Gadhafi.
But lawmakers have protested since the operation began that even if Gadhafi is a tyrant, Libya poses no real threat to the United States, and thus the operation is unnecessary and expensive.
It’s not just lawmakers like Heck. It’s also House leaders, including Speaker John Boehner.
Heck’s measure is a longshot. The Libya operation has cost about a billion dollars so far: cheap compared to the $1.3-trillion bill the country has run up on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The lack of ground troops, and the extent to which the offensive is being carried out by unmanned drones -- including the Predator drones that are stationed in Heck’s home state -- means the threat of American military casualties is almost nonexistent.
(The White House announced today that the president will address the nation Wednesday at 5 p.m. Las Vegas time "to lay out his plan for implementing his strategy ... to draw down American troops from Afghanistan.")
While Heck’s measure stands a good chance of passing in the House, it’ll have to clear a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate to get around the President, who says the Libya mission isn’t a war, and thus isn’t subject to the rules concerning Congress’ war powers.
Already, lawmakers in the Senate seem to be working to help out the president, by throwing up what seem like obvious hurdles to Heck’s plan.
Democrat Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. John McCain introduced a resolution Tuesday that would put a one-year limit on the president’s authority to commit resources to the Libyan offensive and bar him from sending ground forces, but fund and authorize the operations in the meantime.
“The last message any United States senator wants to send is that this mad man need only wait us out because we are divided at home,” Kerry said.
“Is this the time to ride to the rescue of a failing tyrant when the writing is on the wall that he will collapse?" McCain said.
For about long as the United States has had a military, the president and the Congress have disagreed about how deploy it. And while the Constitution may give Congress “the power to declare war”, Congress hasn’t actually done that since 1942.
The way the United States gets involved in military conflicts, more often than not, is by the president committing troops -- and then going and seeking Congressional authorization after the fact.
On Sunday, however, the clock ran out on Obama's use of the 1973 War Powers resolution. Drafted in response to growing national frustration and fatigue over the Vietnam war, the measure proscribes a 60-day window during which the president may commit troops, with a possible 30-days extension; but after that, Congress has to either give its go-ahead, or the troops come home.
Presidents of both parties have declared the resolution unconstitutional. When it was passed, Congress had to do it over then-President Richard Nixon’s veto. Right now, Obama is insisting that it doesn’t apply to the situation in Libya.
Even if it applies in this case, it doesn’t make Heck’s cause easier, at least not before it’s time for Congress to determine defense spending for the next fiscal year, which doesn’t start for another three and a half months.
No one has offered a date when the nation's and NATO’s involvement in Libya will end, because it appears to depend on the situation on the ground. Libyan rebels are reportedly closing in on Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, which would be an advance of about 350 miles from the rebel stronghold city of Benghazi. But Sirte is still almost 300 miles from the capital of Tripoli.