The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution Tuesday authorizing U.S. involvement in the NATO-led mission in Libya, a small step forward in a stubborn legal stalemate between Congress and the White House over the war.
If adopted by both chambers of Congress, the resolution would permit U.S. involvement for up to one year, but would restrict any expansion of the nation’s role. Four Republican members of the committee joined the Democratic majority to pass the measure on a 14-5 vote.
The White House said President Obama “welcomes” the resolution but insisted that he did not need it under the federal War Powers Act, a point which many in Congress, including Democrats, dispute.
That disagreement has left the three-month-old conflict in a legal limbo. The White House maintains that U.S. involvement is too limited to require congressional authorization, but congressional leaders say the president is violating the War Powers Act.
Although the committee’s action demonstrated bipartisan interest in the Senate in settling the issue, the dispute is unlikely to be resolved soon. The full Senate is not expected to vote on the measure until after returning from next week’s July 4 break. Meanwhile, the House has already rejected an authorization bill, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is backing an amendment that would cut off funding for the effort.
The Vietnam-era War Powers Act requires a president to get authorization from Congress within 60 days of alerting lawmakers that U.S. forces have been sent into hostilities, or begin a withdrawal.
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 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 Act, Koh said.
Koh’s explanation appeared to win few sympathizers 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, 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.