By Russell Berman - 06/17/11 12:05 AM EDT
Congress moved toward a confrontation with President Obama over funding for the military mission in Libya as Speaker John Boehner said the White House’s justification for the operation did not “pass the straight-face test.”
While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) provided some cover by backing the president’s position that the Libyan intervention did not require congressional authorization, others in Obama’s party sided with Boehner, including the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.
The Speaker said the report failed to answer all his questions, and he raised the possibility that the House would move as soon as next week to cut off funding for the operation, which will reach its 90th day on Sunday.
“The White House says there are no hostilities taking place, yet we’ve got drone attacks under way, we’re spending $10 million a day, [and] part of the mission is to drop bombs on [Libyan dictator Moammar] Gadhafi’s compound,” Boehner said at a news conference Thursday morning. “That doesn’t pass the straight-face test, in my view, that we’re not in the midst of hostilities.”
Boehner’s threat comes two days before he is scheduled to play golf with Obama, Vice President Biden and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).
The Speaker said Thursday that the White House did not answer one of his questions — outlined in a letter he sent this week — as to whether the Office of Legal Counsel, an advisory entity within the Justice Department, agrees with its analysis of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. He said he wanted an answer to that query by Friday.
The White House sniped back at Boehner, suggesting his emphasis on enforcing the War Powers Resolution was inconsistent with his past suggestion that the law was unconstitutional. It also indicated it would not be providing Boehner with an immediate opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel.
The volleys amounted to a remarkable shift in the political alignment on the use of U.S. military force. While a Republican House challenged the president’s authority on legal grounds, Obama received strong backing from Pelosi, the liberal Democrat who led opposition to the war former President George W. Bush launched in Iraq and who has pushed for a speedy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Pelosi offered her support for Obama’s interpretation of the War Powers Resolution. “The limited nature of this engagement allows the president to go forward,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol. “I’m satisfied that the president has the authority he needs to go ahead.”
“If we had boots on the ground … then that’s a different story,” Pelosi added. “I don’t think they should stop the support that they’re giving to NATO to stop the humanitarian disaster.”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), however, criticized the legal analysis provided by the White House, and said the U.S. engagement in Libya was “war in the classic sense” and constituted “open hostilities” with Gadhafi.
“I have held every president of both political parties to this standard through the course of my congressional career,” Durbin said. “And I think President Obama will remember the days when he was in the Senate and thought the same thing.”
Durbin said he would introduce a measure to formally authorize the mission.
Press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday the president “absolutely respects” Congress’s desire to be consulted on Libya, but Carney said the report issued to lawmakers and the public on Wednesday should suffice.
“I don’t anticipate further elucidation of our legal reasoning, because I think it was quite clear,” Carney said.
Boehner said the House was considering its options to exert authority over the administration and that next week the chamber “may be prepared to move on those options.”
The “ultimate option,” Boehner said, is that “Congress has the power of the purse” and could cut off funding for the mission. “Certainly that is an option as well,” he said.
Later on Thursday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said next week’s floor schedule could include “potential legislation related to the ongoing military conflict in Libya.”
Forcing the president’s hand could be difficult, however, because any House-passed funding restriction would have to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed by Obama. And any Libya-related amendment would likely be attached to an appropriations bill that might not move through the Senate for months.
Carney said that the administration provided Congress with an “accurate and sound legal analysis.”
“We believe U.S. forces are not engaged in the kind of hostilities envisaged by the War Powers Resolution,” he said. “U.S. operations do not involve a number of elements traditionally associated with hostilities, including sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces; the presence of U.S. ground troops — let me reiterate — not a single U.S. ground troop in Libya now or ever.”
The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires presidents to get congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, or withdraw forces within the next 30.
Carney on Thursday again warned about Congress “sending mixed messages” that could harm a mission that is showing progress.
He also noted that Boehner’s comments “stand in contrast to the views he expressed in 1999 when he called the War Powers Act ‘constitutionally suspect,’ and warned Congress to ‘resist the temptation to take any action that would do further damage to the institution of the presidency.’ ”
Responding to his earlier criticism of the War Powers Resolution on Wednesday, a Boehner spokesman, Michael Steel, said the Speaker’s “responsibility is to hold the White House accountable to the War Powers Resolution, which is the law of the land.”
The report met fierce opposition Wednesday from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who spearheaded a bipartisan lawsuit contending Obama violated both the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution in his actions on Libya. “The White House claim that the war is not war is not a legal argument,” Kucinich said in a statement. “It is a political argument.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Obama “made a mistake” in not asking Congress for authorization and said he would vote to defund the mission. But he said Kucinich’s lawsuit was unlikely to succeed because courts have ruled the congressional authority to restrict the president’s military authority comes through the appropriations process.
Mike Lillis, Sam Youngman, Erik Wasson and Pete Kasperowicz contributed to this story.