Conyers: Obama lacks authority to use force in Libya

The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee says President Obama lacks the constitutional authority to conduct military operations in Libya.

Rep. John Conyers said the White House overstepped its powers in launching U.S. forces into the embattled North African nation without prior approval from Congress. The Michigan Democrat wants lawmakers to return from a 10-day recess for an emergency debate on the issue.

"While the legislative and executive branches have long grappled over the exact division of powers in times of war, the Constitution grants sole authority to the Congress to commit the nation to battle in the first instance," Conyers said in a statement Monday night. "That decision is one of the most serious that we are called upon to make and we should never abdicate this responsibility to the President. 

"I therefore join my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in calling for an immediate session of Congress to review United States military engagement in Libya."

Conyers cited a list of court decisions to back his position, including a 1973 ruling against the Defense Department's operations in Cambodia during the height of the Vietnam War.

In that case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found “there is no existing Congressional authority to order military forces into combat into Cambodia or to release bombs over Cambodia, and that military activities in Cambodia by American armed forces are unauthorized and unlawful."

Conyers isn't the only liberal Democrat criticizing Obama's decision to enter the fray in Libya. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) this week has bounced from one cable news program to the next, also questioning the legality of the operations.

"We've got to be very sure here that we follow the Constitution, and president Obama didn't do that," Kucinich told Fox News on Monday. "If we don't abide by our Constitution, everything falls apart here. … It's not about whether you like President Obama or not. I like President Obama. But I love the Constitution."

The White House has downplayed the U.S. role in the international military campaign to enforce a U.N.-backed no-fly zone and halt Moammar Gadhafi’s use of force against Libyan citizens. Administration officials are quick to note that they aren't providing any ground troops as rebel leaders battle to unseat Gadhafi after 41 years at the helm of the country. Officials also say they'll cede command to European allies as soon as the initial objectives are met.

"There are very clearly defined goals for the military operation that we are undertaking," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters Monday. "It is to protect Libyan civilians, stop the advances of Gadhafi’s forces on cities like Benghazi, enable the establishment of a no-fly zone, and enable the provision of humanitarian assistance to the people of Libya.

"Those are the express purpose of the military mission," he added, "which is not about regime change."