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U.S. Role in Libya Rankles Congress, Revives Questions on War Authority

June 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The House rendered a split decision on Libya Friday, rejecting an authorization of U.S. military involvement, but stopping short of ending funding for the mission. Jeffrey Brown discusses the fight between the White House and Congress with Norman Ornstein of The American Enterprise Institute and The Takeaway's Todd Zwillich.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on today’s vote, we turn to congress-watcher Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Todd Zwillich, Washington correspondent for the “Takeaway” radio program from Public Radio International and WNYC.

Welcome.

TODD ZWILLICH, WNYC Radio: Thank you.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Todd, the first vote, not giving approval to the Libya operation, was expected, I think, right?

TODD ZWILLICH: It was. It can’t be seen as anything but a rebuke to the White House, but not unexpected.

Members of Congress have been carping for weeks. I think the — your report said 97 days in, and members have been carping the entire time that they weren’t consulted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carping over that, right?

TODD ZWILLICH: Carping over that. This is largely — there are a lot of members with a lot of different grips about this operation, that, first and foremost, it’s a separation-of-powers issue: You didn’t consult us. You never sought authorization from Congress. We do have the War Powers Act, which requires the president to — he can launch operations. He has to come back within 60 days.

You didn’t even do that. And then this White House definition of it not being hostilities, to many members of Congress, seems tortured or downright off-base. And so a lot of them cast their votes on that basis.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the second vote, at least going in, seemed a little less certain how it was going to turn out, on the funding issue.

TODD ZWILLICH: It did. And, indeed, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was on Capitol Hill yesterday testifying in a routine hearing, but made time to meet with Democrats — interestingly, not with Republicans — but met with Democrats, asking them not to support that defund effort.

She got what she wanted on that, even though she probably did get a rebuke on the first vote. It is all kind of a confusing picture. It leaves it open for the White House to spin it as they want and for opponents of the war spin it as they want. And that’s what’s happening now.

But, clearly, the White House dodged a bullet by not having the war at least partially defunded.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Norm, tell us about the strange bedfellows aspect, you had people moving across the aisle on both of these votes.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And it created, of course, an enormous muddle, not just in the two results, but if you try to interpret things.

We had a lot of strongly anti-war Democrats led by Dennis Kucinich, who, at some subsequent point, is going to bring forward a resolution to cut off all the funding — this was a partial cutoff that was voted down — joining together with some isolationist-oriented libertarian Republicans, like Ron Paul, but with a lot of others who just don’t like President Obama, and others yet who view this in fiscal terms.

So, it was an odd coalition. The second vote was an even odder coalition, because you had a number of those anti-war Democrats who voted against the resolution that would cut off partial funding out of a fear that, if there were any funding that they voted for, it would provide an implicit legitimacy for what they view as an illegitimate action by the president, because he didn’t consult with Congress under the War Powers Act.

JEFFREY BROWN: They want to go even further?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They want to go even further.

But the net result is — and it’s something we saw actually three weeks ago. Congress had two votes in which they rebuked the president for not coming to Congress, but then said we’re going to let him go ahead. Congress doesn’t know how to handle these kinds of issues at all.

They have a War Powers Act. Once you get Americans involved in hostilities, they are very reluctant to take a step that might undercut them. And you have so many different viewpoints, that you get results like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: But explain a little — expand a little bit more on the motivations that you have both raised here that leads to these interesting coalitions. There’s the ones I have just heard, a dislike for the actual mission, the frustration, the battle over legislative vs. executive powers, and, of course, the politics, to stick it to the president in some cases, and the money.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Yes. And one of the things to consider on the Republican side here — and there’s a very — a raging debate going among conservatives about whether there is a new isolationist strain in the Republican Party.

John McCain, who is critical of the president for not coming to Congress for approval, but a strong supporter of our actions in Libya, has wondered whether the Republican presidential candidates might move off in that direction — libertarians like Ron Paul in the House and his son, Rand Paul, in the Senate taking a position that we shouldn’t be — America shouldn’t be involved abroad unless we’re under direct threat.

So, you have got that. On the Democratic side, there’s a longstanding strain of anti-war sentiment that is tempered, of course, because it is a Democratic president, but not tempered all that much. And Democrats in Congress have grown increasingly unhappy, because Guantanamo is still open. The president has adopted some of the techniques that President Bush used to deal with terrorist threats. There’s Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Libya.

And we saw that reflected a little bit, along with the strong sense of congressional prerogatives by Jerry Nadler, the liberal Democrat who spoke on the House floor in the tape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Todd, you mentioned Hillary Clinton trying to sway some votes. Was there other — was there a big effort by the White House to try to get people on their side here?

TODD ZWILLICH: There was an overt effort, which was the secretary of state. There was a more occult effort this morning, the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, inviting a couple of Democrats, some of them anti-war Democrats, directly down to the Situation Room to try to convince them, ostensibly on a classified basis, what’s really going on in Libya and why the president needs their votes.

I wasn’t in the room. None of us was. But that seemed to be — that seemed to be the point there — so a very public move by secretary, working on members on a more individualized basis. There’s a lot of clout when you’re invited into the Situation Room. The White House didn’t want to lose either of these votes. They certainly didn’t want to lose the second one.

And I will say, with — you mentioned Dennis Kucinich and his effort that is coming up after July 4. He should have an amendment on a defense spending bill that will completely cut off spending.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s still to come.

TODD ZWILLICH: Still to come. And 144 Republicans voted for this defund, this partial defund, many of them not because it was — many of them, you know, didn’t vote for it because it wasn’t strong enough. When a full defund comes, how many members will vote for something that’s as strong as it can be, choking off funding? Where would the chips fall for that?

JEFFREY BROWN: But let me ask you about the other side, the Republicans, because I noted that, yesterday, John Boehner made a statement to sort of reassure, I guess, NATO allies that this was a symbolic gesture, that the U.S. forces will still be there.

So, they were playing an interesting game in all this as well, right?

TODD ZWILLICH: When domestic politics clashes with foreign policy, leaders have to do this. The speaker knows that, even if a defund had passed the House, it couldn’t pass the Senate. And even if it passed the Senate, this is a — this is a bill. The president would have to sign that. And why would he?

So, reassuring the allies that, no, the money will not be cut off, even if we’re having our domestic squabbles, Europe, don’t worry too much about it — the leaders have everything under control, even though there’s a lot of yelling going on in the House.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Norm, how unusual is something like this, to have votes like this in the midst of military operations?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: You get the votes, but, generally speaking, Congress carps and then they vote to authorize.

The last time we had something happen like this was in 1999, when Congress refused to allow President Clinton the authority to have ground forces in Kosovo. But, of course, the bombing operations continued.

Generally speaking, the War Powers Act is not a very effective mechanism, even when it’s applied, because once you have American forces in action, Congress tries to have it every which way.

In this case, I should note, Speaker Boehner thought he had a very calibrated respond, you know, rebuke the president by denying him the authority under the War Powers Act, but leave him a little running room on the funding. It didn’t work in the votes the way he wanted. And it shows that leaders can’t quite get the votes guaranteed on issues like this, where you have all of these cross-cutting ideas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, but you’re a longtime observer of this. They go in saying it’s a symbolic vote, but symbolism sometimes sends loud messages.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: And one of the more interesting comments that I thought after these votes came from one of the leaders of the Libyan opposition, saying, how can you do something like this?

So, Speaker Boehner knows that you’re playing with live grenades here in a way, with a little bit of fire. And that’s why I think Todd is right, that a vote that Kucinich is going to bring up, even though it’s also, in many ways, symbolic — the Senate is simply not going to cut off funding and they’re not going to cut off the funds — is something that has the leaders, I suspect, including Speaker Boehner, very nervous, because that signal will reach Moammar Gadhafi, and that’s not something that Congress really wants to do.

They want to make their point, but they don’t want to have it blow up in their faces.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, Todd, when are you expecting that? That’s after the July 4…

TODD ZWILLICH: That’s the defense spending bill, which should come up after the July 4 break, in a couple of weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Todd, also — I should say, expect that we’re going to see an intensified effort to try and get Gadhafi to move out of here before we get any of these…

TODD ZWILLICH: Before we have that problem, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before you get to the…

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Next week should be interesting in Libya.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Norm Ornstein, Todd Zwillich, thanks very much.

TODD ZWILLICH: Thank you.