Senators back Obama over Libya

By Daniel Dombey and Anna Fifield in Washington

US senators have backed the Obama administration’s policy on Libya, endorsing a

resolution that would authorise Washington’s participation in the combat for up to one year.

The move by the Senate foreign relations committee is the latest twist in a debate over
President Barack Obama’s ability to move ahead with military operations without Congressional
authorisation.

The administration has argued it is performing a mere supporting role in the Nato Libyan mission, despite calls by its European allies earlier in the conflict for more US support. The committee voted by 14 votes to five to authorise US participation in the Nato Libya mission, a move Congressional aides said set the stage for authorisation by the full Senate next month.

“Today’s vote shows there is strong support for this resolution in the Senate,” said one aide, predicting the issue would come to the floor of the chamber after its July 4 recess.

Authorisation by the full Senate would relieve domestic political pressure on Mr Obama after the House of Representatives voted last week against a similar resolution authorising US participation in the conflict. After extensive administration lobbying, the House shied away from a separate resolution that would have cut funding for the US’s Libya effort.

John Kerry, the committee chairman, said that Tuesday’s vote demonstrated “to the world, and in particular to Muammer Gaddafi, our commitment to this critical endeavour”.

But the committee rejected the administration’s argument that US participation in the conflict did not amount to “hostilities” and therefore no authorisation was required under the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

Harold Koh, the state department’s chief legal adviser, described “hostilities” as “an ambiguous term of art that is defined nowhere” in the legislation, adding the Libya operation had involved “no US casualties, no threat of significant US casualties, no active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, no significant armed confrontation or sustained confrontation of any kind with hostile forces”.

He also stressed that nine previous administrations had decided authorisation under the War Powers Resolution did not apply to situations “where far more significant fighting plainly did occur, such as in Lebanon and Grenada in 1983, and Somalia in 1993”.

Obama administration officials argue that political attacks on Mr Obama’s stance on the conflicts are unlikely to gain much momentum. This is partly because of Republican divisions over the use of US military force overseas.

The leading sceptic on Libya at Tuesday’s committee was Senator Richard Lugar, the veteran Republican, who noted that the administration had initially argued the conflict would be limited in time and scope, but now was unable to say when it would end and had added as a goal the departure of Colonel Gaddafi.

Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said: “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal,” at an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, referring to the Democratic party. “It does not need a second one.”

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