The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Tuesday to back President Obama’s deployment of U.S. forces to Libya in a strong bipartisan vote that delivered a critical boost to a White House that has found itself under assault from Capitol Hill.
Voting 14-5, the Senate panel approved a resolution authorizing Mr. Obama to continue limited strikes by U.S. warplanes and unmanned drones, though it specifically prohibits American ground forces from being used either now or in a postwar peacekeeping situation.
Despite grumbling over the way the president has handled thorny constitutional questions, senators agreed with the administration’s plea that the war effort on behalf of Libyan civilians is just and necessary.
“We are where we are,” said Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the committee, who led the effort to pass a resolution that would, he said, give “a clear and specific authorization” for what U.S. troops can and cannot do in Libya.
Mr. Kerry said at a time when Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi is reeling, Congress has a chance to send a message to him and to U.S. allies throughout the world who are wondering whether the U.S. will see through the mission.
Four Republicans joined all 10 committee Democrats in voting to back the president. The resolution now goes to the full Senate, which likely will take it up after a July Fourth recess.
But the Senate is on a collision course with the House, which last week rejected a similar resolution on an overwhelming 295-123 vote, suggesting the lower chamber is in no mood to authorize the conflict that has now extended past the 100-day mark and has precipitated a constitutional dust-up.
Together, the two chambers appear headed for stalemate - which would have the effect of giving Mr. Obama a free hand to continue the conflict.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, offered an amendment that would have specifically prohibited strikes by U.S. warplanes and manned drones, but the measure failed by a 14-5 vote.
Senators on both sides of the aisle said Mr. Obama has failed to keep Congress in the loop on operations, and many of them said the ongoing air attacks mean he is likely in violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
“I think the administration has been cute in their response and I think it’s created a mini-firestorm in Congress by their being cute, one tick too cute,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, who warned colleagues that if it approves the conflict Congress would be agreeing to a precedent that would leave the president with a free hand.
After seeking authorization from the United Nations and consulting with American allies, Mr. Obama in March committed U.S. forces first to lead and then later to back up NATO in establishing a no-fly zone over Libya. The stated goal was to prevent the massacre of civilians who were backing rebels fighting Col. Gadhafi’s forces.
The president alerted Congress of the conflict under the provisions of the War Powers Resolution, but never sought its approval. With U.S. troops no longer leading the effort, he said, the resolution is no longer binding and its 60-day or 90-day withdrawal deadlines don’t apply.
Speaking to the Senate committee hours before Tuesday’s vote, State Department legal adviser Harold Koh acknowledged some wrong-footed moves by the administration in its consultation with Congress, but pleaded with lawmakers not to undercut the war effort in retaliation.
“The debate over the law can go on forever, but there is an important and urgent question and that is what happens to the civilians of Libya,” Mr. Koh said.
Mr. Koh said the debate over presidential authority comes down to what it means to be engaged in hostilities.
“The legal trigger for the automatic pullout clock ‘hostilities’ is an ambiguous term of art that is defined nowhere in the statute,” he said.
Lawmakers kept looking for an absolute measure of what violates the War Powers Resolution, and pointed to continued attacks by U.S. forces as evidence of hostilities.
The administration, however, repeatedly tried to frame the conflict in comparison with other factors: That other nations are doing far more than the U.S.; that American forces are relatively unexposed to danger from Libyan troops; and that the amount of munitions being dropped by Americans is just 1 percent of what was dropped in the 1998-99 conflict in Kosovo authorized by President Clinton.
Mr. Koh said drone attacks and other aspects of modern warfare do raise questions about the 1973 law and whether it needs to be updated for 21st-century technology.