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Washington • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday approved a resolution limiting the U.S. role in NATO's Libya mission to one year.
The resolution passed on a 14-5 vote. It puts the Senate at odds with the House of Representatives, which last week resoundingly rejected a measure to extend the three-month-old U.S. involvement in Libya for a year.
The full Senate is expected to take up the resolution next month. The measure, co-sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says it's in the national interest for President Barack Obama to employ the U.S. military in the NATO-led mission to prevent Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from crushing his population.
But like the House, several senators expressed serious reservations about how Obama went about engaging American forces and raised questions about whether the president violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which no president has ever acknowledged as binding.
That law requires a president to seek congressional approval within 60 days of the start of any conflict. If approval isn't granted, U.S. involvement is to end within 30 days.
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Republican, said the Kerry-McCain resolution is too broad, lacks teeth, and gives Obama too much leeway. He tried to narrow the resolution with a series of amendments.
One amendment attempted to limit U.S. operations in Libya to search and rescue, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial refueling and operational planning. It also precluded air strikes by U.S. aircraft and armed drones.
Noting that the U.S. is still engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is saddled with more than $14 trillion in debt, Lugar said the nation should "not be intervening in a civil war" in Libya.
"American intervention in Libya did not come as a result of a disciplined assessment of our vital interests or an authorization debate in Congress," Lugar said. "I'm concerned that this resolution would provide broad authorities permitting significant expansion of United States military involvement in Libya's civil war."
The amendment failed 14-5.
Lugar was one of several senators still seething over what they considered Obama's lack of congressional consultation on Libya.
At the committee's hearing earlier in the day, lawmakers from both parties grilled the State Department's top lawyer over whether Obama had exceeded his authority and circumvented the War Powers Resolution with his decision to join NATO's Libya mission.
Harold Koh defended Obama, arguing that he didn't need Congress' authorization because the U.S. role in the NATO mission is so limited it can't be considered a war or even "hostilities."
"But as virtually every lawyer recognizes, the operative term 'hostilities,' is an ambiguous standard, which is nowhere defined in the statute," Koh said in prepared testimony. "Indeed, the legislative history of the Resolution makes clear there was no fixed view on exactly what the term 'hostilities' would encompass."
Koh's rationale enraged Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
"I would guess at night, however people of your category give high-fives, you're talking to other academics about this cute argument that has been utilized," Corker told Koh. "But I would say to you that I think you've undermined the credibility of this administration. I think you've undermined the integrity of the War Powers Act. I think by taking this very narrow approach, you've done a great disservice to our country."
The committee did adopt a Lugar amendment that establishes that the current U.S. military operations over Libya do constitute hostilities under the War Powers Resolution and are subject to that resolution's provisions that require authorization by Congress.