The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution Tuesday authorizing U.S. involvement in the NATO-led mission in Libya, a small step forward for those in Congress seeking a path out of a stubborn legal stalemate with the White House.
The resolution would give approval to U.S. engagement in the mission for up to one year, but puts new restrictions on expanding the U.S. role. Four Republicans joined the Democratic majority to pass the measure on a 14-5 vote.
It’s a resolution that President Obama has declared he would “welcome" but which he also insists he does not need under law — a point on which many in Congress, including Democrats, disagree.
That sticking point has put the 3-month-old conflict in a legal limbo as the White House maintains that the U.S. involvement is too limited to require congressional authorization and congressional leaders insist that the president is violation of the War Powers Act.
While the committee’s action demonstrates the bipartisan interest in settling the issue — at least in the Senate — the dispute is unlikely to be resolved soon. The full Senate is not expected to vote on the measure until after it after it returns from a Fourth of July break. Meanwhile, the House has already rejected an authorization bill and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is backing an amendment that would defund the effort.
The Vietnam-era War Powers Act requires a president to get authorization from Congress within 60 days of sending U.S. forces into hostilities or end the action.
At a hearing before the committee vote, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh acknowledged that the law’s interpretation is often disputed. He outlined the White House position that current conditions do not meet the law’s legal definition of hostilities.
“When U.S. forces engage in a limited military mission that involves limited exposure for U.S. troops and limited risk of serious escalation and employs limited military means, we are not in hostilities of the kind envisioned by the War Powers Resolution,” Koh told the committee.
Koh’s explanation appeared to win few fans from either party. Sen. Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.) called it “cute.” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) called it a “contorted legal definition.”
U.S. planes, unmanned drones and intelligence operations are already engaged in the mission.
The committee approved an amendment prohibiting deployment of ground troops. It also approved an amendment stating that the War Powers Act did, in fact, apply to the conflict.
Koh acknowledged that the White House might have handled the situation better.
"There were perhaps steps we should have taken or could have taken to foster better communication on these very difficult legal questions," he said.