In a victory for President Barack Obama, a Senate panel voted Tuesday to approve U.S. participation in the military campaign against Libya and Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
The 14-5 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stood in sharp contrast to the House's overwhelmingly rejection of a similar step last week, muddling the message about congressional support for the commander in chief's actions and the NATO-led operation.
"When Moammar Gadhafi is bunkered down in Tripoli, when yesterday the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of crimes against humanity, at a moment where our armed forces are supporting a NATO mission aimed at preventing more such atrocities, do we want to stop the operation?" the committee's chairman, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked his colleagues.
The resolution would limit U.S. involvement to one year while prohibiting American ground forces in Libya except for search and rescue operations or to protect government officials. Obama had indicated he would welcome the bipartisan measure.
The full Senate is expected to consider the resolution the week of July 11.
The committee's action came after a morning of sometimes testy exchanges between Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, and panel members over Obama's decision not to seek congressional authorization for the Libya operation, now entering its fourth month.
Koh said Obama had acted legally because the limited U.S. role is neither a war nor the kind of full-blown hostilities that would trigger an American withdrawal within 60 days, as established in the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
"Our position is carefully limited to the facts of the present operation, supported by history, and respectful of both the letter of the resolution and the spirit of consultation and collaboration that underlies it," said Koh, who acknowledged that the administration could have done a better job in dealing with Congress.
Prior to backing the resolution, the committee adopted a series of amendments, including one that specified that the operation was "hostilities" that fall under the War Powers Resolution and require congressional authorization. The panel rejected an amendment, 14-5, limiting the military role to intelligence sharing, refueling, surveillance, reconnaissance and operational planning.
The panel's top Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, opposed the resolution, arguing that with the U.S. at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation's debt in the trillions of dollars and no vital interests in Libya, "I do not believe that we should be intervening in a civil war there."
In his testimony, Koh warned that abandoning the mission now would undermine U.S. relationships with allies and "permit an emboldened and vengeful Moammar Gafhafi to return to attacking" Libyan civilians.
Koh faced Republicans and Democrats who challenged his assertion that air strikes and drone attacks on Gadhafi's forces do not constitute hostile action.
Lawyers from the Pentagon and Justice Department declined the panel's invitation to testify.
"The fact that we are leaving most of the shooting to other countries does not mean that the United States is not involved in acts of war," Lugar said. "If the United States encountered persons performing similar activities in support of al-Qaida or Taliban operations, we certainly would deem them to be participating in hostilities against us."
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a decorated Vietnam War veteran, questioned the administration's "narrow and contorted definition of hostilities," adding that an operation that lasts for months, costs millions of dollars and involves combat pay for troops offshore amounts to hostilities.
Obama angered lawmakers by ordering air attacks on March 19 and then failed to seek congressional approval for the action within 60 days, as established by the 1973 War Powers Resolution, or end the operation. In a report to Congress earlier this month, the administration said Libya does not amount to full-blown hostilities and congressional consent is unnecessary, further incensing members of Congress.
Koh said four factors led Obama to conclude that the Libya operation did not fall within the War Powers law. The lawyer said the military's role is limited _ in mission, exposure of U.S. troops to hostilities, risk of escalation and military attacks.
Koh said the War Powers Resolution does not define hostilities, and neither the courts nor Congress have spelled it out.
Kerry pointed out that the resolution was passed in response to Vietnam, then the nation's longest conflict in which more than 58,000 Americans died yet Congress never declared war. Nearly 40 years later, the U.S. operation in Libya involves unmanned Predator drones, a weapon the military could only imagine in the 1970s.
Since NATO took command of the Libya operation in early April, the U.S. role has largely been limited to support efforts such as intelligence, surveillance and electronic warfare. The U.S. has launched airstrikes and drone attacks, flying more than 3,400 sorties. The effort has included some 42 drone attacks and 80 strikes with jet fighters.
"In Libya today, no American troop is begin shot at," Kerry said in backing the administration argument.
Koh, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Clinton administration and then became dean of Yale Law School before returning to government service under Obama, has been criticized and praised by conservatives. He was highly critical of the Bush administration's use of enhanced interrogation techniques of terror suspects and their imprisonment at the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
However, he earned plaudits from some conservative opponents when he argued forcefully for the legality of the Obama administration's targeted airstrikes, using both drones and piloted aircraft, against terrorists.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.