War Powers Resolution struggles for respect

Reuters News
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Posted: May 26, 2011 3:09 PM
War Powers Resolution struggles for respect

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi remains alive, the law that some say requires President Barack Obama to get congressional authorization for attacking Gaddafi's forces may be on its last legs.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution, which sought to set out the powers of the president and Congress regarding U.S. military action, could be dying of neglect, some lawmakers warn.

The resolution was a child of Vietnam, an undeclared war that lasted years. Passed over Richard Nixon's veto, it prohibits U.S. armed forces from being involved in military actions for over 60 days without congressional authorization.

Obama notified Congress on March 21 -- well over 60 days ago -- that he had ordered U.S. military intervention in Libya as part of a multinational coalition conducting air strikes to shield civilians from Gaddafi's forces.

But Congress, distracted by other wars, the deficit, and recently the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, can't seem to get excited enough about Libya to assert its supposed powers to either authorize or stop the intervention there.

The House of Representatives did vote on Thursday to ban funds from being used to put U.S. troops on the ground in Libya, except for rescue missions. This would have to be approved by the Senate and signed by Obama to become law.

But some lawmakers say Congress should go further, perhaps by squelching funds for the U.S. Libya operation, if Obama doesn't follow the War Powers Resolution. Their proposals are not likely to get a vote any time soon, however.

"What Congress cannot do is continue standing idly by while our war powers are disregarded," Representative Justin Amash, a Republican, declared on Wednesday.

There was no indication Democrat Obama was concerned about congressional leverage. In London on Wednesday, he reasserted the U.S. commitment to the Libya intervention, declaring there would be no let-up in the pressure on Gaddafi to step down and warning this "slow, steady process" could go on a while yet.

CONSTITUTIONAL POWERS AT ISSUE

Article One of the U.S. Constitution says Congress has the power to declare war. But Article Two says the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.

This has been a source of friction at least since President Harry S. Truman committed U.S. forces to Korea in 1950 without congressional approval.

Congress tried to fix things with the 1973 War Powers Resolution, but no sitting U.S. president has recognized the act as binding. Obama seems to be continuing this tradition.

In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton continued air strikes in the former Yugoslavia past the 60-day deadline in an action that, like the one in Libya, was aimed at protecting civilians.

Obama's flouting of the law over Libya appears to blunt it even more. "Every time the president circumvents the resolution, the more this ... becomes the norm," said Sarah Kreps, assistant professor of government at Cornell University.

On the 60th day of the Libya intervention, May 20, Obama wrote to lawmakers indicating that while he would like them to back the action, he was not asking for authorization.

Meanwhile White House officials suggested that the limited, NATO-led U.S. action might not be enough to reach the law's threshold. But Kreps said the War Powers Resolution does not distinguish between limited and more expansive operations.

On the other hand, she sees little political capital for Congress to try to block the Libya intervention against the reviled Gaddafi, such as by cutting off funds.

HOUSE LAWMAKERS TRY TO SHAKE THINGS UP

But first-term Representative Amash, elected last year with Tea Party support, has proposed a bill to eliminate funds for the Libya operation unless Congress authorizes it. However, no action is scheduled on that or several other related bills.

Senators from both parties who approve of the Libya intervention responded to Obama's wish for congressional support by introducing a resolution backing the action. But it is not binding, and not an authorization.

Even that resolution hasn't been scheduled for a vote.

(Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman)