(Updates with Kerry comments starting in fourth paragraph.)
June 28 (Bloomberg) -- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution backing President Barack Obama’s deployment of U.S. warplanes to support allied bombardment of Libya.
The bipartisan resolution was adopted on a 14-5 vote the same day that lawmakers grilled an Obama administration lawyer about the president’s assertion that U.S. warplanes aren’t directly engaged in hostilities. The resolution now goes to the full Senate for consideration. Four Republicans joined the panel’s 10 Democrats to back the resolution.
The House of Representatives refused last week to authorize Obama to continue support of the NATO mission, while also defeating separate legislation to bar U.S. forces from engaging in hostilities. The House probably will revisit the issue next month when it resumes debate after a week-long recess on defense appropriations.
“There are powerful reasons for the United States to join with others in creating the no-fly zone” to force Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to keep “his most potent and dangerous weapons out of the fight with rebels,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said during today’s debate.
Kerry also said that Obama’s consultations with Congress on North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombardment of Libya and the U.S. role in it should “have been handled better.”
Still, he said “the fundamental question” for senators is “do we want to stop the operations?” Kerry said.
The resolution bars the use of ground troops during the conflict.
Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, the panel’s top Republican, called the U.S. mission “an expensive diversion” into Libya’s civil war that “did not come as a result of a disciplined assessment of our vital interests.”
On a 14-5 vote, the panel rejected Lugar’s amendment that would have limited U.S. war planes to non-hostile activities such as aerial refueling, reconnaissance and search and rescue. Those restrictions are similar to ones the House rejected last week.
Kerry argued the proposal “would needlessly tie the hands of the commander in chief,” and “tells the rest of the world we are not going to finish the job here.”
The panel adopted changes proposed by Lugar and Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, to prohibit the use of U.S. ground troops as part of an international peacekeeping force or to preserve order if Qaddafi’s regime falls to rebels.
Lugar succeeded in winning inclusion of language that he said would make clear that “the resolution is intended to constitute specific statutory authorization under the War Powers Resolution,” and that “it is our determination we are in hostilities.”
The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires the president to notify Congress of any hostilities within 48 hours and to withdraw forces in 60 to 90 days if Congress doesn’t authorize the mission. Obama contends he doesn’t need congressional authorization for the Libya mission.
At a hearing earlier in the day, senators of both parties challenged the president’s argument by questioning State Department legal adviser Harold Koh, whose opinion formed the basis of Obama’s assertion.
Stick in Eye
“Are you glad you created an issue” by having “basically taken a stick” to “stick it in the eye of Congress?” Tennessee Republican Bob Corker asked Koh.
“If you felt a stick was stuck, that is not the goal,” Koh said.
Koh, a former Yale Law School dean who wrote about the War Powers Resolution during his academic career, said the “narrow” role of U.S. warplanes in the mission doesn’t meet the definition of hostilities.
The circumstances in Libya are “virtually unique,” he said, because the “exposure of our armed forces is limited, there have been no U.S. casualties, no threat of U.S. casualties,” and “no exchange of fire with hostile forces.”
With a “limited risk of serious escalation” and the “limited military means” employed by U.S. forces, “we are not in hostilities envisioned by the War Powers Resolution, Koh said.
Corker told Koh his advice to the president has “undermined the credibility of this administration” and the integrity of the War Powers Resolution.
‘Disservice’ to Country
By “taking this very narrow approach, you have done a great disservice to our country,” Corker said.
Webb told Koh that Obama had taken a “contorted legal definition of hostilities.”
“I would say that’s hostilities” when “you have an operation that goes on for months, that costs billions of dollars,” and has included U.S. warplanes “dropping bombs and killing people,” Webb said.
Delaware Democrat Chris Coons supported Obama, telling Koh that he found “your focus on unique facts of this situation largely compelling.”
Lugar said Obama’s decision not to seek a congressional authorization put “expedience above constitutional responsibility.”
He said U.S. forces are contributing 70 percent of the intelligence capabilities and most refueling for NATO’s Libya mission. “The fact that we are leaving most of the war shooting to other countries does not mean that the United States is not involved in acts of war,” Lugar said.
Koh said U.S. warplanes have fired only 10 percent of the bombs deployed, and that Predator drones fired missiles on “discrete targets’” to aid civilian protection.
In the House, Representatives Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, and Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, have introduced an amendment that would bar all U.S. funds for the Libya mission, starting Oct. 1.
--Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin
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