By Reid J. Epstein
The fight over presidential authority in the military conflict in Libya reached a tipping point Wednesday, morphing from an academic discussion over the War Powers Resolution to a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s authority to keep U.S. forces involved in the NATO-led air bombings of the North African dictatorship.
A day after House Speaker John Boehner declared Obama would soon be in violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a bipartisan coalition of 10 members of Congress sued the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, arguing they are violating the law. The turn of events sent the White House scrambling to respond; the administration released a report justifying its actions in legal and military terms.
The rift marks the first major foreign policy dispute between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic White House. Formerly hawkish Republicans, now focused on the burgeoning national debt, are demanding Obama explain his actions abroad in a way Democrats once asked of his predecessor.
In the White House report released Wednesday evening, Obama told Congress that American forces have a supporting role, with responsibility for air attacks left to European and Canadian forces.
Of the report’s 32 pages, only one is dedicated to the administration’s legal argument behind Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya. The report says U.S. forces are not the type of “hostilities” covered in the War Powers Resolution.
The report states the Defense Department “does not plan” to seek more funds for the Libya effort. The report says military action has cost U.S. taxpayers $715 million through June 3 and estimated it will cost $1.1 billion through the end of September.
The report also lists instances when the administration provided information to Congress about the conflict, cost, motivation for committing troops to Libya, progress since March by NATO-led forces and a description of the 45-member council representing the opposition to dictator Muammar Qadhafi.
Earlier in the day, two senior administration officials asserted that Obama has legal authority under the War Powers Resolution to conduct American military operations in Libya, despite the lack of congressional authorization.
“We’re not engaged in any of the activities that typically, over the years in war powers analysis, is considered to constitute ‘hostilities’ within the meaning of the statute,” one of the officials said. “We’re not engaged in sustained fighting. There’s been no exchange of fire with hostile forces. We don’t have troops on the ground. We don’t risk casualties to those troops. None of the factors, frankly, speaking more broadly, has risked the sort of escalation that Congress was concerned would impinge on its war-making power.”
The White House did not directly respond to a lawsuit filed by 10 House members. The suit, led by anti-war Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), argued that Obama illegally circumvented Congress.
“There is a body of law here developed over time that we’ve obviously looked at very closely,” one official said. “On any distinction between the spirit and the letter of the resolution, we’re comfortable we’re complying with both.”
Reaction on Capitol Hill was muted.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close Obama ally, called congressional approval “essential” for the Libya mission.
“There are others among us who have — for more than 25 years — held the position that the War Powers Act is the law of the land. When we are engaged in military activity that is not defensive in nature, … congressional approval is essential.”
Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the speaker will review the report and said he hopes it augurs more communication from the White House about the Libya effort.
“The commander in chief has a responsibility to articulate how U.S. military action is vital to our national security and consistent with American policy goals,” Buck said. “With Libya, the president has fallen short on this obligation.”
A spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) declined to comment.
While Qadhafi remains in power, the officials said the air offensive on Libya has made progress in the past two months. Before the U.S. and NATO launched the no-fly zone, Qadhafi’s forces were threatening to go “house to house” in major cities to fight the rebels, the officials said.
“Civilian lives have been saved,” one official said. “Qadhafi’s advancement has been stopped. The opposition has been given time and space to organize.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated Wednesday during a press briefing that Obama will not send ground troops to Libya.
“He will send no ground troops to Libya,” Carney said. “After an initial phase — days, not weeks, as he said, as he promised — the United States stepped back from its lead role in the Libya mission, turned over lead responsibility to NATO and has been in a support mission ever since.”
The senior administration officials also responded to the contention from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann during the Monday GOP presidential candidates’ debate that some members of the Libyan opposition are associated with Al Qaeda. The Transitional National Council, which the officials said is poised to lead a transition to self-rule once Qadhafi loses power, is a “legitimate interlocutor” and “represents a far better future for the Libyan people than the Qadhafi regime.”
Earlier, Kucinich iterated his contention that Obama and Gates broke the law by committing U.S. troops to the conflict.
“With regard to the war in Libya, we believe that the law was violated. We have asked the courts to move to protect the American people from the results of these illegal policies,” Kucinich said.
But the lawsuit is not likely to get far in federal court, said former Rep. David Skaggs (D-Colo.), co-chairman of the Constitution Project’s War Powers Committee. Skaggs called the Kucinich suit “right on the merits” but certain to be dismissed on procedural grounds because courts have determined members of Congress do not have standing to file such suits.
Manu Raju contributed to this report.