Unable to present a unified view on U.S. involvement in Libya, Congress found itself similarly silenced Monday as rebels made gains on ousting leader Moammar Kadafi from decades of rule.
President Obama spoke on the developments as reports from Tripoli dominated the news cycle, but for the most part, Republican and Democratic congressional leaders stayed quiet. Most were awaiting more information, as the situation in the North African capital was in flux.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had no immediate comment and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) the No. 2 GOP leader, was traveling in Israel and unavailable.
Democrats were similarly silent. Among those speaking out early were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), hawks who had pressed Obama to involve the U.S. military in what they saw as a pivotal moment in Arab history.
Sen. Harry Reid, (D-Nev.), the majority leader, weighed in later Monday: “The situation in Libya is still fluid, and the potential for violence is not over. But as we approach a post-Kadafi era, the international community will look to the leaders of the opposition to implement a peaceful transition to democracy.”
The silence coming from Capitol Hill is partly logistics as lawmakers are traveling broadly during the August recess. But it also underscores the political divisions within both parties over the U.S. role in the NATO-led operation.
Just months ago, House Republican leaders seized on the unrest among conservatives lawmakers over the costs and scope of the military involvement, especially at a time of continued economic uncertainty on the home front.
Congress criticized Obama for failing to seek congressional approval for the military campaign, and Republicans found allies among Democrats and the antiwar left skeptical of another overseas military effort.
Several measures were approved by the GOP-led House expressing its lack of support for the president’s handling of the mission. Other attempts in the House to cut off funding for the Libya effort, including one led by antiwar Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), failed.
The Senate had tried to take a measured approach to the Libya undertaking, offering a bipartisan resolution authorizing a limited use of force in Libya. That resolution, offered by McCain and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was abruptly shelved after GOP senators threatened to block its consideration with a filibuster. They said the Senate should be focused on budget problems at home.
On Monday, Rep. Howard L. Berman of California, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, called the rebels’ advance into Tripoli “a great moment for the Libyan people.” He also urged the rebels to show “restraint.”
Obama’s decision to engage in the NATO operation, Berman said, “has helped bring freedom to millions of Libyans and surely saved countless civilian lives.”