At Long Last, House Debates and Votes on Libya War Powers

On Friday, more than two months after President Obama ordered U.S. forces into a war of choice in Libya without Congressional authorization, and more than two weeks after the expiration of the 60 day limit of the War Powers Resolution for the unauthorized use of force, the House finally debated and voted on the deployment of U.S. forces to the Libya conflict.  You can watch the debate on c-span here.

What brought this debate and vote to pass was a resolution to withdraw U.S. forces from the conflict within 15 days brought pursuant to the War Powers Resolution by Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich.  This resolution was originally supposed to be voted on Wednesday, but the House leadership, fearing that the resolution would pass, delayed consideration until Friday.

In the meantime, Speaker Boehner crafted an alternative resolution criticizing the Administration’s lack of communication and consultation with Congress on the war, designed to drain enough support from the Kucinich resolution so that the Kucinich resolution would not pass.

Not surprisingly, Boehner’s strategy worked.  The Boehner resolution passed, 268-145, with 223 Republicans and 45 Democrats voting yes (roll call).  The Kucinich resolution was defeated, 148-265, with 87 Republicans and 61 Democrats voting yes (roll call).

Despite the defeat of the Kucinich resolution, Friday’s action by the House was important.

Friday’s action shows that the War Powers Resolution is not dead.  A key feature of the War Powers Resolution is that it allows for expedited consideration for a resolution such as that brought by Kucinich.  The WPR was in part designed to address exactly this situation: an unauthorized war which Congress has not acted to stop.  Because of the War Powers Resolution, Kucinich was able to force a debate and vote.

Because Kucinich was able to force a debate and vote, and because there was a real possibility that the Kucinich resolution would pass, the House leadership was forced to craft and pass an alternative resolution critical of the Administration’s lack of consultation with Congress on the war.

During the floor debate, critics of the Kucinich resolution argued that regardless of what one feels about how the U.S. got into the war — in particular, the fact that it was never authorized by Congress — the U.S. is now committed, and withdrawing from the conflict now would have bad consequences, including damaging relations with other countries in NATO participating in the war.

Republican and Democratic supporters of the Kucinich resolution countered that the logical consequence of the argument that Congress can’t take action once U.S. forces are committed would be carte blanche for this President or any future President to commit U.S. forces to combat, anywhere, anytime, for any reason, without Congressional authorization.

Unlike the Kucinich resolution, the Boehner resolution does not have the force of law, and it does not directly address the question of the President’s usurpation of Congressional war powers.

However, passage of the Boehner resolution will add to pressure on the Administration to explain what the U.S. is doing in Libya and to seek Congressional authorization, or else to bring U.S. military participation to a close.  By increasing pressure to end U.S. military participation, the resolution may indirectly increase pressure on the Administration to support a realistic negotiated resolution of the conflict.  Moreover, the passage of the Boehner resolution as a substitute for the more decisive Kucinich resolution will increase pressure on the House leadership to follow through with further action if U.S. participation in the war continues, and continues to be unauthorized.

The Boehner resolution made the following statements of policy:

The President has failed to provide Congress with a compelling rationale based upon United States national security interests for current United States military activities regarding Libya.  The President shall not deploy, establish, or maintain the presence of units and members of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Libya unless the purpose of the presence is to rescue a member of the Armed Forces from imminent danger.

The second of these statements of policy simply reaffirms the (legally binding) amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act enacted by the House last week, introduced by Michigan Representative John Conyers, barring the use of funds for ground troops in Libya.

But the first statement is a House vote of no confidence in Administration policy.  The U.S. House of Representatives is now on record stating that the President has failed to justify the Libya war in terms of U.S. national security interests.

The Boehner resolution also set out a list of questions for the Administration, giving the Administration 14 days to respond, including:

  • the President’s justification for not seeking authorization by Congress for the use of military force
  • US political and military objectives
  • anticipated scope and duration of US military involvement
  • costs so far
  • total projected costs
  • expected role of the US in the establishment of a successor regime
  • assessment of the ability of opposition forces in Libya to establish effective military and political control of Libya and a practicable timetable for accomplishing these objectives.

In the debate, supporters of the Boehner resolution asserted that if the 14 days elapsed without a satisfactory response from the Administration, the House would revisit the issue, and take further action, including the possibility of cutting off funding for U.S. participation in the war.  The argument was made that the House should give the Administration a period of time to comply with House demands.

Members of the House should hold the House leadership accountable to this 14-day deadline.  As the situation stands today, passage of the Boehner resolution has done nothing about the fact that the Administration has involved the U.S. in a war of choice that was not authorized by Congress and is therefore illegal and unconstitutional.  But if the Boehner resolution effectively pressures the Administration to seek Congressional authorization, to seek a diplomatic resolution, or to end U.S. participation; or if the Boehner resolution serves as a prelude to action in two weeks by the House to end U.S. participation in the war, it will have been a positive step.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published in the Just Foreign Policy blog on 3 June 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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