Capitol Hill falls silent as Libya war rages

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The world is at war, but Washington is eerily empty, devoid of all the power players who normally foster a soul-searching debate when the country goes on the attack.

President Obama made the decision to bomb Libya from Brazil, the top congressional leadership is all out of town as Congress takes a 10-day vacation, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden spent the weekend in Wilmington, Del. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was traveling in Russia on Monday.

That left rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties with a list of unanswered questions about the Libya operation’s cost, its duration and the danger of the mission expanding beyond just a no-fly zone — all concerns they said are souring them on the operation.

The lack of organized debate in the U.S. contrasts starkly with Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron faced his colleagues in Parliament directly Monday, and answered their questions.

“Who’s minding the store while we’re at war?” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who tried to spark a debate on military action last week before Congress went on vacation, and who has since called for Congress to reconvene.

“Think about this for a moment. In the last week they had time to garner 10 votes at the U.N., they had time to talk to the Arab League [and consult with] NATO, France and Britain. It seems the administration talked to everyone but the United States Congress, which has the constitutional authority to commit this country to war,” Mr. Kucinich said.

Part of the reason is the Democrat-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House voted last week to take a 10-day vacation, finishing up business on Thursday, two days before the strikes began.

Now, all four top leaders are gone: House Speaker John A. Boehner was in Ohio for his daughter’s wedding this weekend, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was traveling in Rome on official business after a weekend stop in Afghanistan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was in Nevada, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is traveling and doing some fundraising this week.

Aides said their bosses are keeping in touch by phone and are getting regular briefings, but without their leaders to corral them, members of Congress were increasingly questioning U.S. involvement.

“The United States does not have a King’s army. President Obama’s unilateral choice to use U.S. military force in Libya is an affront to our Constitution,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Maryland Republican.

Some also questioned the cost of the operation. The White House told reporters traveling with the president that it did not have a cost estimate and the Pentagon didn’t return a message seeking details.

Several spokesman for congressional leaders and the appropriations committees said they haven’t been given any spending details either.

The White House has pushed back strenuously against charges Mr. Obama is acting beyond his constitutional authority, and said the quick pace of action was forced by Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

They also indicated that Congress‘ recess made it impossible to do anything more than notify leaders.

“The circumstances arose with the passage of the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, the night before a congressional recess,” National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters Sunday — though he said if Congress wants to give “expressions of support,” those would be welcome.

Asked about the need for congressional approval, the White House pointed to both the “limited” nature of U.S. involvement and the U.N. resolution authorizing some action.

But Mr. Kucinich, a presidential candidate in 2004 and 2008, said that doesn’t cut it with him.

“I’m a big supporter of the U.N. OK? But the U.N. doesn’t have command and control over U.S. forces unless the Congress agrees to that,” he said. “The U.N. does not trump the U.S. Constitution.”

Mr. Obama, who is on a long-scheduled visit to South America, was asked Monday how he felt about being on foreign soil when he made the final decision to attack. He was in the middle of a day of meetings with Brazilian leaders on Saturday.

“With respect to initiating this action while I was abroad, keep in mind that we were working on very short time frames,” he said, adding that he laid plans for airstrikes last week in Washington and only had to give the go-ahead to Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Obama held a meeting and conference call Friday to consult with congressional leaders, and then on Monday sent them a letter outlining his decision and saying he was acting under U.N. authority and in accordance with his roles as chief of foreign policy and of the U.S. military.

“I have directed these actions, which are in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as commander in chief and chief executive,” he said.

Throughout his trip, he has juggled the duties of diplomacy with overseeing the military attack. That has involved regular briefings, including a Saturday morning session aboard Air Force One before landing in Brazil and a noon call with his top security team and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has continued to receive briefings as the action he progressed, his advisers said.

The president has also had to balance the military actions against the demands of being a good tourist. On Sunday after dark, he and his family visited the famous Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. Still upcoming is a visit to El Salvador, where a visit to Mayan ruins is planned.

As for Mr. Biden, he was in Delaware over the weekend to attend the reopening of an Amtrak rail station named in his honor, and on Monday attended a fundraiser in Boston, though he kept up to date by phone and made calls with Middle Eastern leaders to talk with them about the Libya operation.

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