White House briefing changes few minds on Libya involvement

Lawmakers emerged from  classified briefings on the situation in Libya as divided as they were when they went in.

A host of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats reiterated their condemnation of U.S. operations, citing cost, timing and constitutional concerns, while Democratic leaders were much more supportive of the White House decision to intervene in the violent uprising to unseat Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

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The briefings to House and Senate lawmakers took place as reports emerged the administration has sent CIA teams into Libya to aid the rebels.

Top GOP leaders, meanwhile, remained noncommittal on the operations, as they have been over the last two weeks.

Leading the hour-long briefings were Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Intelligence Director James Clapper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. The gatherings were designed to provide an operational update and quell congressional concerns.

In the case of Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), it didn’t work. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said the “humanitarian mission” simply doesn’t square with the White House’s stated “political goal” of Gadhafi leaving power.

“We did no-fly zones in Iraq and Bosnia, and those didn’t resolve anything,” McKeon told The Hill. “For this thing to be resolved, someone is going to have to put boots on the ground.”

A growing number of lawmakers in both parties have lashed out at the administration in recent days, questioning both the constitutionality of the intervention and the wisdom of staging another Middle Eastern offensive while the U.S. already is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least two members — one Democrat (Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio)), one Republican (Rep. Austin Scott (Ga.))— even accused President Obama of launching the military campaign while Congress was in recess so he would not have to get its approval.

Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.), the No. 3 Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, minced few words when it came to his displeasure with the White House decision.

“Not consulting Congress is crazy,” Burton said. “Who’s going to pick up the tab for all this?”

According to several lawmakers, Clinton highlighted the Senate-passed resolution from earlier this month endorsing a no-fly zone, and told members the administration “has legal opinions” that they were within the law in not seeking congressional approval.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the White House was justified in acting as it did because Gadhafi’s forces were moving in to “slaughter” civilians in Benghazi. Still, Hoyer conceded that “there rarely is a clear endgame” for such missions.

Top Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), declined to comment following the briefing. Both lawmakers said Tuesday that they have lingering questions about the U.S. involvement. Neither of their offices would comment on whether those concerns were alleviated Wednesday.

Approximately 10 lawmakers had an opportunity to ask questions during the briefing — several of which tried to get at the constitutionality of the administration’s action. Both parties asked tough questions, a source told The Hill.

“Democrats and Republicans alike seemed to be frustrated that we’re in this situation,” said the source. “It was very bipartisan. There wasn’t one person that stood up and was supportive — not one.”

Summarizing a central concern of many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said the White House simply shunned Congress when it launched its attacks.

“I was not satisfied with their answer today — or their attitude,” Walden said. “I just walked away thinking they care more about the Arab League than the United States Congress.”

Administration officials did not respond to reporters’ questions as they left the gathering. After the House meeting, they met with Senate lawmakers on the same topic.

Senators took a more hushed tack, with only a handful agreeing to speak with reporters about the classified briefing.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said it is his sense that the “political goal” of Gadhafi relinquishing power “might take longer” than the military intervention lasts. 

Senate Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee Vice Chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sounded the most hawkish tone following the later briefing, telling reporters he hopes Gadhafi “leaves in a box.”

The White House also reiterated Wednesday the U.S. hasn’t determined whether to arm Libyan rebels, while pointedly refusing to comment on multiple reports that Obama signed an official finding authorizing aid to those rebels.

“We’re not ruling it out or ruling it in,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “We’re assessing and reviewing options for all types of assistance that we could provide to the Libyan people, and have consulted directly with the opposition and our international partners about these matters.”

The topic came up at the House briefing, according to a source, who quoted administration officials as saying they’re undecided on whether to provide arms to the rebels.

A number of lawmakers said it’s still too early to support the flow of U.S. arms to the rebel troops.

“I’d have to know more about the rebel troops,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). 

Asked if he supports arming the Libyan rebels, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said the U.S. does not have to do so alone.

“There are a lot of players who can be helpful,” Kerry said.

Several senior senators said after the briefing that they had not heard anything official about a presidential order to secretly arm the rebels.

Lawmakers were also divided on whether the War Powers Act (WPA) would require the White House to get authorization from Congress to continue their operations after 60 days. Sherman said the law clearly requires such approval, but voiced concerns that the administration would simply ignore that step.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) had a different take. He said that, because the U.S. has already ceded control of the operations to NATO, the 60-day timeline under the WPA is irrelevant.

“I think that we’re out,” he said.

White House officials are clearly siding with Ruppersberger, according to a source.

“They made it very clear that the War Powers Act does not cover this,” the source explained.

Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.