By Mike Lillis - 04/01/11 10:11 AM EDT
As President Obama struggles to sell a contentious Libya strategy to a skeptical Congress, Capitol Hill's most liberal voices have emerged as some of the fiercest critics.
Liberal Democrats — the heart and soul of Obama's meteoric rise to the White House — are using floor speeches, op-eds, committee hearings and even legislation to condemn the administration's decision to send U.S. forces to help Libyan rebels oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
"In two years, we have moved from President Bush’s doctrine of preventive war to President Obama’s assertion of the right to go to war without even the pretext of a threat to our nation," Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), an anti-war liberal, said Thursday during a 40-minute broadside fired from the House floor.
"This is a clear and arrogant violation of our Constitution," he added. "Even a war launched for humanitarian reasons is still a war — and only Congress can declare war."
Rep. John Conyers (Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, agrees. Conyers conceded that Congress and the White House "have long grappled over the exact division of powers in times of war." But, he added, "the Constitution grants sole authority to the Congress to commit the nation to battle in the first instance."
"That decision is one of the most serious that we are called upon to make," Conyers said last week, "and we should never abdicate this responsibility to the president."
With Gadhafi threatening to attack even civilians critical of his regime, international forces — led by the United States — launched air and missile strikes in March to establish a no-fly zone over the beleaguered North African nation. The United States on Sunday handed over control of the operations to NATO.
Obama went on national television Monday to explain his decision, which he said was based largely on humanitarian grounds.
"In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," Obama said. "We had a unique ability to stop that violence."
The message was embraced by a number Democrats, but did little to appease the early liberal critics of the operations. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) characterized Obama's speech as "more eloquent than persuasive," while Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) accused the president of sidestepping Congress by waiting until lawmakers left town to launch the attacks.
"How premeditated, and how irresponsible, I believe the current course of events to be," Kaptur said.
Wednesday's classified briefing from administration officials — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates — also didn't alleviate liberal concerns over how the intervention was initiated.
"It still needs authorization," Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) told The Hill as he emerged from the briefing.
These concerns are aired as the Pentagon and the White House are reportedly at odds over the scope and pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Those reports are sure to exacerbate the concerns of lawmakers already wondering about Obama's exit strategy in Libya.
On Thursday, White House officials made the rounds on Capitol Hill yet again, appearing before four committees — two in each chamber — on the Libya situation. Skeptical lawmakers on both sides of the aisle voiced four primary concerns:
— Did the administration have the legal authority to enter Libya without congressional approval?
— Who will pay for the conflict?
— Who exactly are the Libyan rebels the U.S. is protecting?
— How can the United States and NATO ensure Gadhafi is bumped from power without sending ground troops to knock him off ourselves?
Rep. Brad Sherman (Calif.), a liberal Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, didn't let the opportunity to lash out at the White House go to waste.
Sherman went after the witness, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, for using taxpayer dollars to fund the Libyan operation rather than tapping Libya's own enormous resources — largely derived from oil — to cover the tab. The California Democrat also accused the White House of neglecting to ensure the rebel forces don't include those with a history of fighting against Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sherman said he asked about extraditions of such rebels during Wednesday's classified briefing with Clinton and Gates, but didn't get a response. "I'm sure if you give me another classified briefing, I'll still get no answer," he said.
Steinberg noted that President Ronald Reagan launched an air and missile attack on Libya in 1986 without congressional approval. "The test is when the action is limited in scope and duration," Sternberg said.
"Each case," he added later, "has to be taken on its own terms."
Some liberal Democrats are lining up behind legislation to push back against the administration's approach to Libya. A GOP bill to defund the intervention until Congress authorizes it already has as many Democratic co-sponsors as Republicans. Three Democrats — Reps. Kucinich, Pete Stark (Calif.) and Michael Capuano (Mass.) — endorsed the bill this week.
Some Senate liberals want more conditions applied to the White House's Libya policy, as well. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the administration Thursday to provide support to the Libyan rebels only if they agree to hand over Libyan national Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was the only person convicted in the 1998 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The blast killed 281 people, including all 270 aboard the plane. Scottish authorities released al-Megrahi in 2009 citing his poor health — a deal reportedly influenced by Britain's desire to secure an oil contract with Libya.
"This should be straightforward and simple: If you get our support, we get al-Megrahi," Schumer said. "It makes perfect sense to insist that support for their cause is conditioned upon sending al-Megrahi back to prison where he belongs."