Lawmakers sue the White House over use of military force in Libya

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers sued the Obama administration on Wednesday over its use of U.S. military forces in Libya.

Led by Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.), the members contend the White House overstepped its constitutional authority when it launched military operations against Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi in March without congressional approval.

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"This is not an academic question," Kucinich said Wednesday at a press conference in front of the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C., where the suit was filed. "This is about stopping a war now." 

The lawsuit challenges both Obama's constitutional authority to launch the war without Congress's stamp of approval, and the administration's more recent rationale for continuing the operations unilaterally.

"Is Gadhafi an evil man? – certainly," Jones said. "But where are you Congress?"

Eight other House members endorsed the lawsuit, including GOP Reps. Howard Coble (N.C.), John Duncan (Tenn.), Roscoe Bartlett (Md.), Ron Paul (Texas), Tim Johnson (Ill.) and Dan Burton (Ind.), and Democratic Reps. John Conyers (Mich.) and Michael Capuano (Mass.).

Appearing beside Kucinich and Jones Wednesday, Johnson conceded that past administrations have also initiated military operations without congressional authority. But that precedent, he argued, is no reason for Congress to continue allowing it to happen.

"If we don't step forward now – if the courts don't assist us now [and] if our colleagues don't assist us now – effectively they've said [Congress is] a neutered branch of government with no powers in this arena," Johnson said. "And that cannot happen."

The White House on Wednesday is expected to release more than 30 pages of legal documents attempting to justify its foray into Libya.

"We feel very confident that we will be able to answer the questions that members have," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

The lawmakers also contend the White House has violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires presidents to get congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30.

"There is a great misunderstanding that war powers rest in the president of the United States alone," said Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University and lead attorney in the Kucinich-Jones suit. "That is completely wrong."

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After initially leading the operations in Libya, the Pentagon quickly ceded that responsibility to NATO. The continued U.S. military operations include a no-fly zone, bombing raids, a sea blockade and civilian-protection operations.

Kucinich on Wednesday rejected the notion that the administration can act unilaterally in Libya because the U.S. is playing only a supporting role in the operations.

"Whether there are boots on the ground or not doesn't really get into the question of whether or not the president had the ability [to intervene] in the first place," Kucinich said. "It's a constitutional issue here, and it can't be danced around at all."

Such a suit is not without precedent. In 1999, Kucinich and former Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) led another bipartisan group in suing the Clinton administration over military operations in the former Yugoslavia. That suit was dismissed when a federal judge ruled that the lawmakers lacked the standing to file their grievance.

The latest suit challenges the notion that congressional lawmakers – or anyone else – lack the standing to sue administrations over unilateral wars.

"Someone has to have the ability to bring a case to review an undeclared war," Turley said. "The framers were very practical men, they would not have created such an important condition in Article I and left it so that it cannot be enforced.

"The court's going to have to deal with this issue," Turley added. "We can't possibly have one of the most important parts of the Constitution as an aspirational statement without enforceability."

Earlier in the month, the House shot down a Kucinich proposal that would have forced a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Libya within 15 days unless President Obama could secure congressional approval for the mission.

Instead, the chamber approved a last-minute alternative demanding from the White House  details of – and justification for – the Libya intervention by the end of this week. Sponsored by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), that resolution was designed to provide political cover for lawmakers wary of the administration's unilateral intervention, but also dubious of the 15-day withdrawal window proposed by Kucinich.

Boehner jumped backed into the fray over Libya this week. In a letter delivered to Obama on Tuesday, the Ohio Republican said the White House must provide Congress with the legal justification for the ongoing operations by Friday or be in violation of the War Powers Resolution.

Updated at 2:08 pm. Sam Youngman contributed.