Congress moved toward a showdown on President Obama’s troop deployment in Libya, with two veteran senators on Tuesday introducing legislation to validate his moves and the House setting up competing votes, including one that would force him to end combat missions.
The House votes, expected later this week, are the more treacherous for Mr. Obama as frustration with the president’s moves - and with the level of consultation he has shown lawmakers - has boiled over.
“We have no desire to damage the NATO alliance, which has been a strong force for peace and stability in Europe and around the world,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “Still, the White House must not ignore its obligations to the American people and the laws of this country.”
At issue is whether Mr. Obama is adhering to the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which lays out restrictions on how the president may commit U.S. troops to “hostilities.”
Mr. Boehner said the House will vote on competing resolutions. One would prohibit the president from having U.S. assets engaged in any combat, which could constrict the missions American forces are undertaking in support of NATO. The other would validate Mr. Obama’s current decisions, but would cap any mission to one year and would insist that U.S. troops not be deployed on the ground in Libya.
That second resolution mirrors one introduced Tuesday by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“This is not a blank check for the president. This resolution authorizes the limited use of American forces in a supporting role,” Mr. Kerry said in a floor speech to the Senate. “It says specifically that the Senate does not support the use of ground troops in Libya. And it authorizes this limited use of American forces for a limited duration - it would expire in a year.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he believes the Senate has the votes to pass the resolution, though he doesn’t yet know when it might come to the chamber floor.
But it sets the Senate on an opposite path from the House, where lawmakers are increasingly frustrated with the war effort and Mr. Obama’s level of consultation with them.
The House is also set to vote later this week on several amendments to the defense spending bill that seek to block continued efforts in Libya by withholding funding.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat who is sponsoring one of the defunding amendments, said U.S. involvement in the conflict is both illegal and unwise.
“This war was sold to Congress and the American people as a ‘humanitarian war’ meant to protect Libyan civilians. U.S. participation is fueling a civil war. Civilians die in wars,” he said.
Lou Fisher, a scholar on separation of powers issues and a member of the Constitution Project’s war powers committee, said the Senate usually takes the lead in these international debates, but this time around the House has been driving the issue.
The lower chamber already has passed a resolution that set a deadline for Mr. Obama to provide information on the conflict. Mr. Obama sent a 32-page report to Congress last week, but many lawmakers said it didn’t meet their expectations.
Mr. Fisher said the issues raised go to the core of the Constitution’s division of military powers between the president and Congress, and the War Powers Resolution, which seeks to maintain that balance by imposing deadlines of 60 or 90 days for any deployment that hasn’t received prior approval from Congress.
“There is something very new about this,” Mr. Fisher said. “This is the first time a president has gone beyond the 90 days and said ‘I don’t require authorization, I got my authorization from the Security Council.’ That’s new.”
American troops led an operation in March to establish a no-fly zone over Libya to protect rebels fighting against government forces controlled by Col. Moammar Gadhafi. After initial fighting, the U.S. turned control of the operation over to NATO, though American warplanes still fly sorties and U.S. drones attack Libyan positions.
Mr. Obama has said that since U.S. troops aren’t on the ground, and the Libyans aren’t really firing back at Americans, it doesn’t rise to the level of “hostilities” that would trigger the War Powers Resolution.
The White House has declined to seek approval from Congress, said it would “welcome” support if Congress chooses to show it.