Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, Dr. Brenda Bryant of Marygrove College, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and City Councilwoman Barbara Rose-Collins at the MCHR Annual Dinner in Detroit on April 19, 2009., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Dems not sold on Libya pitch
By Jonathan Allen
June 23, 2011 07:49 PM EDT
The White House staged a last-ditch effort to persuade House Democrats to vote against restricting the U.S. mission in Libya, but an emergency meeting Thursday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t appear to win many hearts and minds.
Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed strong reservations with both President Barack Obama’s decision to commit American forces to the civil war in Libya and his determination that he does not need congressional consent to continue the mission. Democratic critics of the Libya operation said Clinton didn’t advance the cause among the dozens of lawmakers who showed up to hear her out.
Even the argument that Republicans wouldn’t challenge a president of their own party the same way didn’t carry much sway.
“The president has not developed strong relationships with members of Congress that would allow members to even look at the politics of this,” said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who asked Clinton on Thursday to identify the leaders of the Libyan opposition that the United States and its NATO allies are supporting. “I am opposed to this mission,” she added.
The depth of the House’s overall dissent will be tested Friday, when the chamber will take up a resolution to authorize the war — which is widely expected to fail — and a bill to prohibit the White House from spending money on the mission in Libya. It is the second measure — a historic, yet largely symbolic clash over the war powers of the president and Congress — that will be most closely watched by vote-counters and advocates on both sides of the debate.
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has no intention of letting the bill become law, the White House is worried about the political fallout of losing a vote on the House floor.
“They don’t want to be embarrassed,” a senior Democratic aide said of the last-minute White House push to corral Democratic support.
But Republicans are predicting there will be strong support on both sides of the aisle for the bill, authored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.).
How divided are Democrats? At a meeting of the party’s leaders and its top committee members Wednesday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave a clear endorsement of Obama. She said she would vote to authorize the Libya mission, which began in March with missile strikes from U.S. ships. But her closest ally in Congress, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), took issue with that position, witnesses said, arguing that the American public won’t put up with continued U.S. military commitment abroad in Afghanistan and Libya. One described Miller as jumping “down her throat,” though other sources contested that depiction and said his discontent was aimed at the White House.
Whatever the case, the difference of opinion between Pelosi and Miller, who has been her most loyal lieutenant over the years and who represents a neighboring Northern California district with a similar constituency, illustrates the internal conflict for Democrats who want to support the president but fear either the policy or the political repercussions of marching in lock step behind him.
Republicans are split, too. Some say they’re uncomfortable with the Rooney bill because it prohibits spending on combat operations but explicitly exempts many current U.S. activities — such as intelligence-gathering and search-and-rescue missions — from the ban. Others don’t like the idea of Congress restraining the president’s authority to conduct military operations.
Across the parties, there are two main complaints about the president’s handling of Libya: The first deals with the mission itself and whether it’s in the best interests of the United States. The second revolves around the War Powers Act and whether the president has violated it by continuing the operation for more than 90 days without congressional consent.
For Republicans, there’s a third, mostly unspoken element: It’s a chance to portray Obama as out of step with public opinion — as expressed by the people’s House. And for Democrats, that political element is present, too: A vote to tie the president’s hands in Libya would be a painful rebuke.
Still, some Democrats say they’re concerned that if they give Obama carte blanche to execute the mission, a future Republican president would ignore Congress in taking the nation into a more expansive war and cite the mission in Libya as precedent.
“It’s very important that Congress stand up and say that we protect our constitutional prerogative and that we don’t go to war just on the president’s say-so,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). If the current situation doesn’t require congressional consent under the War Powers Act, Nadler continued, “I can’t imagine any situation where he would need congressional authorization.”
But the president also has supporters in his own party.
Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, a senior member of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Pentagon, said Clinton made a compelling case that “the administration’s standing up for its values, and that’s what Libya’s about.” Moran and Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, the top Democratic defense appropriator, have been strong proponents of the president’s policy all along.
Moran said he’s not worried that Obama’s setting a precedent for a future president to go to war without congressional approval.
“He’s going to anyways,” Moran said.
Both Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are backing the president, while Republican leaders have not yet made clear their intentions on the two measures.
While the first is designed to show that the president can’t win an affirmative vote to authorize action in Libya, the second can be viewed both as a rejection of his policy and a tacit green light for most of the current U.S. operations.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a leading Democratic opponent of the Libya mission, said members should vote next month for the Rooney bill and an appropriations amendment to cut off all funding after Oct. 1. In the past, the courts have recognized congressional spending — or decisions to cut it off — as statements of policy.
The Rooney bill “is legally significant and politically significant, if it passes,” Kucinich said.
Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) is the sponsor of the authorization measure, which would give the president the authority to continue operations for up to one year after its enactment but prohibit him from sending in combat troops. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are working to bring similar legislation to the floor of the Senate.
The Rooney bill would cut off funds for Operation Odyssey Dawn, with the exception of spending on search-and-rescue missions, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, operational planning and aerial refueling. Because Reid supports the president’s policy, that legislation is unlikely to be taken up by the Senate.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.