Speaker Boehner under pressure from the right and the left on Libya policy

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is under siege from factions on the left and the right as the House considers whether to strike funding for the U.S. military mission in Libya.

House Republicans and anti-war liberals want Boehner to escalate a confrontation with the Obama administration over war powers and defend the relevance of Congress in military affairs by bringing forward a bill to end funding for the Libyan operation.

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But conservative hawks such as Karl Rove, Liz Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz are urging Boehner to resist the temptation to pass legislation that would, in their view, undermine American power and prestige on the world stage.

“Speaker Boehner is in a very difficult position, not just because of his members but because of the way the administration has handled this,” said Randy Scheunemann, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). 

Scheunemann was one of 38 signers of an open letter to House Republicans, released Monday, that urged Congress not to end funding for the military operation in Libya. Rove, Cheney and Wolfowitz also signed the letter.

“A decision [to cut off funding] would be an abdication of our responsibilities as an ally and as the leader of the Western alliance,” the letter says, according to a copy posted on the website of The Weekly Standard, whose editor, Bill Kristol, was a signer. “It would result in the perpetuation in power of a ruthless dictator who has ordered terrorist attacks on the United States in the past, has pursued nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and who can be expected to return to these activities should he survive. To cut off funding for current efforts would, in short, be profoundly contrary to American interests.”

The letter echoes arguments made Sunday by McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who warned against bowing out of the NATO mission.

The House is likely to vote this week on legislation restricting funds for the Libya mission, either as a standalone measure or an amendment to a defense appropriations bill, GOP aides said Monday.

Tensions on Libya between the House and the administration reached a boiling point last week. Boehner demanded more consultation from President Obama about the military operation, along with a legal justification for carrying it out. 

In a 32-page report, the White House said the Libya mission does not fall under the 1973 War Powers Resolution requiring congressional authorization because it does not amount to “hostilities,” as defined by the law.

Boehner said the explanation did not pass “the straight-face test,” and asked for a separate opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, an advisory panel in the Justice Department.

The White House ignored the request, but The New York Times reported on Saturday that Obama overruled the Justice Department in concluding that Libya did not apply under the War Powers Resolution.

“The fact that the White House ignored the advice of the Justice Department and flouted the War Powers Resolution calls for some serious accountability,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Monday. “It’s time the president answered the questions the American people and Congress have about our involvement in Libya and his responsibilities under the War Powers Resolution. We’re discussing with our members all the available options to hold the administration to its obligations.”

Steel and others said the House leadership would not decide on a course of action until members return Tuesday.

The Libya fight has put Boehner in the unusual position of challenging the president’s authority to wage war. In 1999, Boehner argued in favor of robust presidential powers and called the War Powers Resolution “constitutionally suspect.” Just a few weeks ago, the Speaker displayed his hawkish inclinations when he made a vocal push to maintain U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, warning against using the death of Osama bin Laden as an excuse to withdraw from the region.

Now, however, Boehner finds himself leading a conference that includes dozens of members more closely aligned with Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) than former President George W. Bush on foreign policy.

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a vocal critic of the administration on Libya, said Boehner “certainly sounded” more skeptical of the War Powers Resolution at the beginning of the U.S. intervention, when members began clamoring for Congress to weigh in. In recent weeks, he said, “the Speaker has started to come more toward [our] opinion.”

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The shift may be institutional as much as it is based on policy. “He takes his role as leader of the House as his ultimate responsibility,” Rooney said.

Another administration opponent on Libya, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), added: “The Speaker is committed to the House being relevant.”

The House earlier this month passed a Boehner-authored resolution criticizing the administration, but Turner said members are now pushing for a more robust measure. “They want to take some action that has some force and effect,” he said in an interview.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday a vote to defund the mission “would send a bad message” to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and to U.S. allies.

Scheunemann criticized the Obama administration’s handling of Congress, but he said the reliance of House Republicans on the War Powers Resolution was misplaced. “I’m a little disappointed to see many Republicans use this supremely flawed and very likely unconstitutional piece of legislation,” he said in an interview.

And Scheunemann acknowledged there was an element of politics to the efforts of House Republicans to tie Obama’s hands. “If John McCain were president, you would not be seeing this level of opposition from House Republicans,” he said.


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