By Russell Berman - 03/28/11 10:00 AM EDT
Congress returns to Washington this week to confront a scenario few
lawmakers envisioned when they left town less than 10 days ago: a third
U.S. war in the Arab world.
The question is now: What should Congress do about it?
More institutional than partisan, the complaints center on the sense that, in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Congress was “left out.”
As lawmakers head back to the Capitol, they are anxious to make their voices heard.
Led by the anti-war Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Obama’s most vocal critics have pledged to try to defund the operation at the first opportunity. Yet there is little expectation such a measure would pass, nor does there appear to be broad support for a declaration of war.
With criticism mounting, Obama will address the nation on the conflict tonight.
For all the restiveness on Capitol Hill, the dominant cry from lawmakers is not opposition, but war-weary skepticism. With long conflicts ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a federal deficit topping $1 trillion, the reaction from hawks and doves alike reflects a nation that’s in a far different place than it was in the steely days after Sept. 11, 2001.
The result is a congressional debate turned temporarily upside down. Lawmakers who left Washington haggling over $50 billion in spending must now grapple with a military operation that some have labeled a new war.
In a letter that both Republicans and Democrats said captured the mood of Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Obama that he and other House members were “troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission.”
The congressional frustration has forged unlikely alliances, as top Democrats like Rep. John Larson (Conn.) have made similar complaints as Boehner and Cantor.
Administration officials counter that Obama acted decisively, and multilaterally, in an emergency situation in which Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi was bent on committing atrocities against his own people. They point out that the president ordered air strikes as part of an international coalition enforcing a United Nations Security Council resolution, and that he did so only after briefing congressional leaders at the White House March 18.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that the Senate passed a bipartisan resolution on March 1 calling for a no-fly zone and that there were congressional leaders in both parties “demanding that action be taken” on Libya.
Had the U.S. not intervened and Gadhafi had carried out a slaughter, Clinton said, in an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday: “Everybody would be saying, ‘Why didn’t the president do something?’”
For all the hand-wringing, the full scope of congressional opinion on the president’s intervention remains far from clear. Notably, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been completely silent, and his spokesman has declined repeated inquiries about his position.
The administration’s advocates acknowledge it hasn’t helped itself by sending conflicting messages about whether the goal in Libya is to force Gadhafi from power or merely to protect civilians from his wrath.
Obama has said U.S. policy is for Gadhafi’s departure but that the military’s objective is not to remove him — an explanation Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a supporter of the operation, called “a bit cute.”
At Boehner’s request, the White House has arranged for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and top military and intelligence officials to provide a classified briefing Wednesday for the entire House.
Lawmakers are keenly aware that with NATO expected to assume command of the coalition’s no-fly zone, the window for Congress to make itself heard may pass quickly, if it ever opened at all.
“I personally thought we should have been called back right away to debate it and to really determine what Congress wanted to do,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said. “I don’t know whether there’s any way retroactively you can have this debate.”
Rep. Gary Ackerman (N.Y.), a top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said holding a vote on the Libyan mission when Congress returns would be akin to “putting down a $2 bet on a horse race that happened last week.”
“This thing will be over before they get co-sponsors,” Ackerman said.
On Sunday, Gates said the U.S. military role would soon “diminish” as NATO takes command.
With critics scattered across the political spectrum, Obama’s strongest supporters hail from surprising corners. One is Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a second-term conservative and Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hunter offered a mild criticism of Obama’s muddled message on whether to remove Gadhafi, but he voiced total support for the limited military mission.
“I agree with what he’s done so far on his use of force,” he said about Obama. “I agree on his timing, I agree on the fact that he went in with a coalition.”
As for Obama’s critics in Congress, Hunter said he saw a lot of “politicizing.” More consultation, he added, “would have been nice, but it’s not necessary.”
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.