President Barack Obama on Wednesday dismissed the congressional criticism of his decision to wage war against Libya as political and argued that any sign of support from Washington for strongman Moammar Gadhafi makes no sense.
Pushing back against Republicans and Democrats, Obama defended his decision to order U.S. military action more than three months ago and insisted he had not violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires congressional authorization within 60 days of the first military strikes. The president claims Americans supporting the NATO-led operation are not engaged in full-blown hostilities, making congressional consent unnecessary.
"We have engaged in a limited operation to help a lot of people against one of the worst tyrants in the world, somebody who nobody should want to defend," Obama said at a White House news conference. "And we should be sending out a unified message to this guy that he should step down and give his people a fair chance to live their lives without fear. And this suddenly becomes the cause celebre for some folks in Congress? Come on."
The reason, the president said, is "a lot of this fuss is politics."
In fact, congressional Republicans and Democrats have challenged Obama's authority and claims.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 14-5 on Tuesday for a resolution approving the military campaign against Libya, but only after adopting an amendment by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., that said the U.S. military actions are hostilities that require congressional approval under the War Powers Resolution.
Last week, the House voted overwhelmingly against giving Obama the authority to continue the military mission but stopped short of cutting off funds. House Republicans and Democrats contend that Obama has not provided a compelling rationale for the operation and ignored Congress in not seeking its authority.
Seventy Democrats abandoned the president on the 295-123 vote.
"I honestly don't know how he can say it's political," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., in a telephone interview shortly after the president's news conference. "We, in a strong bipartisan voice, said it's not about parties, it's about separation of power."
The constitutional clash pits the commander in chief, who says he has the legal authority to involve the U.S. military in the mission in Libya, against the Congress, where lawmakers seized on reports that Obama overruled the advice of some of his legal advisers in their interpretation of the War Powers Resolution.
"The administration's own lawyers believe that the president has failed to comply with the War Powers Act," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "His refusal to answer a basic question _ does he believe the law is constitutional or not? _ is unacceptable. Congress, and the American people, deserve a straight answer."
Obama contended that the debate raging over his authority and the operation misses the point about Gadhafi, who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
"A guy who was a state sponsor of terrorist operations against the United States of America is pinned down, and the noose is tightening around him," said Obama, who reiterated that Gadhafi must step down.
The initial operation was to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi's forces. 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.
"When officially did it change from protecting civilians to taking out Gadhafi?" Rooney asked. "Don't get me wrong, Gadhafi is a bad guy, but when did the mission change?"
The fierce congressional dispute with the administration picks up again next week when the House considers a defense spending bill and a likely amendment to cut off funds for the operation in the next Pentagon budget. The bipartisan amendment has the backing of Reps. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Justin Amash, R-Mich.
The Senate plans to consider the resolution approving to the mission the week of July 11.