Senate panel approves 'limited' American military role in Libya

A Senate panel approved legislation Tuesday authorizing the Libya military intervention as a lawyer for the Obama administration for the first time said the White House should have consulted lawmakers sooner.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution giving its approval for the kind of “limited” U.S. military action now under way there. That word is key, as it means the resolution does not endorse using American troops for a full-scale war in Libya.

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The use-of-limited-force resolution passed the committee 14-5, with fellow GOP Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.), Jim Risch (Idaho), Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Mike Lee (Utah) joining ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) in voting against it.

That vote came a few hours after Harold Koh, a senior State Department lawyer, acknowledged to the panel that the Obama administration should have consulted with Congress before sending in U.S. forces to thwart Moammar Gadhafi’s alleged plans to attack his own people.

The New York Times reported recently that President Obama overruled several senior administration lawyers who argued the operation amounted to the kind of hostilities central to the 1973 War Powers Act, meaning congressional approval would be required.

Koh explained to the panel that Obama and other administration officials have since determined the limited U.S. operations — things like aerial refueling and drone aircraft strikes — do not meet that law’s hostilities threshold.

Another word that played prominently Tuesday was “cute,” which is the way Corker described the White House’s definition of what constitutes combat hostilities. 

That broadside came during a Tuesday morning committee hearing as part of a series of GOP members’ charges that the Obama administration failed to seek congressional approval before launching the mission, which the U.S. military led during its opening weeks.

Corker said by not first coming to Capitol Hill, the White House opted for “sticking a stick in the eyes of Congress,” a move he said “undermined the integrity of the War Powers Act.”

Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) took umbrage with Corker’s remarks during a testy exchange. The chairman said he went to Senate leaders before the operation began in March about a use-of-force resolution “but no one wanted to do it.”

Saying he would not stand by and let critics “throw darts” at the White House, Kerry added that “any senator can go to the Senate floor” to challenge the constitutionality of the operation, but no senator has done so.

Corker also said the committee was “rushing” its use-of-force resolution “in its urge to be relevant.” The White House’s lack of consultation about using force shows it views the Senate as lacking relevancy, he added.

When Koh responded that the Obama administration does not view the Senate as an irrelevant entity, Corker shot back: “Oh, we’re making ourselves irrelevant.”

Lugar later joined Corker in saying the resolution — and the entire Libyan mission — is unnecessary.

Citing “the lack of U.S. vital interests in Libya, I do not believe that we should be intervening in a civil war there” at a time when “our national debt exceeds $14 trillion,” Lugar said at the start of the afternoon markup.

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But the use-of-force resolution is needed to “send a message” to U.S. allies that Gadhafi must be ousted from power, a spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of the resolution, told The Hill in an email. 

The House last week shot down a similar resolution, putting the ultimate fate of the Senate panel’s measure in doubt. To that end, Kerry would only say Tuesday that “hopefully” it would be brought to the Senate floor.

Kerry said Senate leaders have so far shown no interest in having a full chamber vote on such a measure.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), also a co-sponsor of the resolution, has he doubts a majority of senators would vote to end U.S. participation in the Libyan military campaign.

“I think there’s not a clear sentiment here to stop our support of the Libyan operation,” Levin told reporters June 10 after getting a classified briefing on the operation from Pentagon officials. “I don’t think there’s a majority view to that effect, or anything close to it.”

This story was posted at 4:22 p.m. and updated at 7:05 p.m.

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