Senate bill looks to close 'loophole' in White House's war powers

Webb is planning to introduce legislation requiring the president to obtain congressional approval before using military force for humanitarian or peacekeeping operations. 

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The pending bill will also require that debate begin within days of such a request and that a vote "must proceed in a timely manner," the Virginia Democrat said during a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday. 

"This is not a political issue," he said. "We would be facing the exact same constitutional challenges no matter the party of the president. In fact, unless we resolve this matter, there is no doubt that we someday will." 

Webb said his bill was needed after the administration failed to seek lawmakers' blessing before taking military action against former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi last March. 

The War Powers Act specifically requires that the White House notify Congress any time the United States seeks to take military action in a foreign country. 

But the Libya operation, carried out under the auspices of a U.N.-mandate peacekeeping mission, allowed the Obama administration to circumvent any legislative approval for the action.  

Under the definition of a peacekeeping or humanitarian operation, U.S. action in Libya "was not even subject to full debate or a vote on the Senate floor," Webb argued.

"Congress seems to have faded into operational irrelevance," Webb said. "We have now reached the point that the unprecedented ... constitutional logic used by [the White House] to intervene in Libya on the basis of what can most kindly be called a United Nations standard of ‘humanitarian intervention.'"

That move set also set dangerous precedent as the United States, U.N. and NATO mull military options to depose Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power. 

Acceptance of this precedent "is also to accept that the Congress no longer has any direct role in the development, and particularly in the execution, of foreign policy," he said. 

If passed, Webb's bill would close the "loophole" exploited by the White House by slapping the label of humanitarian operations as a way to skirt congressional notification for possible military action in Syria, he explained. 

Assad's brutal suppression of anti-government forces has spurred calls on Capitol Hill for the United States to force him from power. 

Top U.S. and NATO military leaders are already exploring the possible political and military fallout in Syria if Western powers decide to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by military force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said May 5. 

However, lawmakers have already sought assurances from top administration officials that the United States will not act militarily until Congress is consulted. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee in April that the Pentagon and White House are determined not to take any unilateral action in the country. 

Any action taken by the United States would require large-scale buy-in from international allies, he said during the April 19 hearing. 

However, panel member Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) pressed Panetta on why the approval of the international community would trump authorities granted by Congress. 

"That is not what we believe the constitution to be. That is not what we believe the War Powers Act to be," Forbes told The Hill after the hearing. 

Webb agreed with his counterpart in the House on Wednesday, saying the White House's ability to wage war under the banner of a peacekeeping or humanitarian mission was unacceptable. 

"It is a bridge too far. It does not fit our history. To give one individual such discretion ridicules our Constitution. It belittles the role of the Congress," Webb said.