Boehner’s flip-flop

Whether or not you agree with the White House’s legal argument regarding its authority to participate in the NATO-led, U.N.-authorized mission in Libya without congressional consent, it’s hard not to question House Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLast Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Top aide: Obama worried about impeachment for Syria actions An anti-government ideologue like Mulvaney shouldn't run OMB MORE’s (R-Ohio) political motives when you consider that he fairly eloquently took the exact opposite position in the 1990s.

Back then, questions about the War Powers Act and its constitutionality were raised regarding actions President Clinton took when committing U.S. resources to a NATO-led mission, authorized by the U.N., when another crazy leader was mercilessly murdering innocent people. At the time, BoehnerJohn BoehnerLast Congress far from ‘do-nothing’ Top aide: Obama worried about impeachment for Syria actions An anti-government ideologue like Mulvaney shouldn't run OMB MORE sided with every president since Nixon (when the law was first signed), questioning the constitutionality of the act. He said, “A strong presidency is a key pillar of the American system of government — the same system of government our military men and women are prepared to give their lives to defend. Just as good intentions alone are not enough to justify sending American troops into harm’s way, good intentions alone are not enough to justify tampering with the underpinnings of American democracy.”

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How times change. It’s 2011; again a crazy dictator is killing innocent people; but this time Boehner presides over a fractured Republican majority and a freshman class that has shown its willingness to challenge his authority and rarely passes on an opportunity to undermine the legitimacy of our current president. Just two weeks ago, Boehner actually said President Obama was “technically” in compliance with the War Powers Act, despite rumblings from within his caucus. As pressure mounted, Boehner flipped his previous position on the act, doing so in a letter to Obama last week, charging that the administration had not sufficiently explained its Libya strategy, leaving Congress to assume that either the administration believes the War Powers Act doesn’t apply or is ignoring the act as “contrary to the Constitution.” The Speaker threatened to invoke the power of the purse and cut off funds if the administration did not provide a legal justification within 14 days (a claim he likely would not have made if actual ground forces were involved). The administration’s response was based on its legal opinion that the limited nature of the engagement and supporting role were not consistent with the type of “hostilities” envisioned by the act. 

The Speaker also tried to suggest that Obama had flipped positions, citing comments made during a speech in October 2007 at DePaul University. In that speech, Obama questioned the legal authority of the president under the War Powers Act, in a specific reference to the Iraq war of choice, in which a president lied to Congress and the American people.

Boehner has yet to square the circle and explain why U.S. participation involving ground troops in a NATO operation against a vicious dictator killing innocent people in Bosnia is not a violation of the act, yet a NATO-led operation against a vicious dictator in Libya where ground troops are not involved is. Given that 87 Republicans decided they were willing to defend a vote in favor of a resolution introduced by Congress’s most liberal member in defiance of Boehner, he will likely reject the administration’s position and move to make good on his threat to cut off funding for the mission. 

Perhaps before doing so, the Speaker should remember that — as he said last December — if the GOP is itching for a fight, the president is ready to rumble.

Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.