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Senate braces for a long, contentious Libya debate

91 days after President Barack Obama notified Congress he was using U.S. military force ito attack Libya, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Carl Levin (D-MI) introduced a resolution authorizing the intervention. But don’t expect the Senate to pass it any time soon. In interviews with over a dozen senators Tuesday, The Cable ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

91 days after President Barack Obama notified Congress he was using U.S. military force ito attack Libya, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Carl Levin (D-MI) introduced a resolution authorizing the intervention. But don't expect the Senate to pass it any time soon.

In interviews with over a dozen senators Tuesday, The Cable discovered that it will take weeks, not days, for the resolution to come up for a vote. The resolution's language is only the starting point for a Senate debate that will feature resolutions and amendments from multiple senators, each of whom has their own ideas of how to express the Senate's position on the Libya war. Of course, the lack of Senate consensus on the war is precisely why there's been no debate until now, but Obama's declaration last week that there are no "hostilities" ongoing in Libya and the expiration of the deadline to use military force without Congressional authorization under the War Powers Resolution have forced the issue.

Even the three senators who are leading the resolution drive can't agree on whether Obama's adventure in Libya is legal in the first place.

91 days after President Barack Obama notified Congress he was using U.S. military force ito attack Libya, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and Carl Levin (D-MI) introduced a resolution authorizing the intervention. But don’t expect the Senate to pass it any time soon.

In interviews with over a dozen senators Tuesday, The Cable discovered that it will take weeks, not days, for the resolution to come up for a vote. The resolution’s language is only the starting point for a Senate debate that will feature resolutions and amendments from multiple senators, each of whom has their own ideas of how to express the Senate’s position on the Libya war. Of course, the lack of Senate consensus on the war is precisely why there’s been no debate until now, but Obama’s declaration last week that there are no "hostilities" ongoing in Libya and the expiration of the deadline to use military force without Congressional authorization under the War Powers Resolution have forced the issue.

Even the three senators who are leading the resolution drive can’t agree on whether Obama’s adventure in Libya is legal in the first place.

"I do not think our limited involvement rises to the level of hostilities defined by the War Powers Resolution," Kerry said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

"I’m dubious of that interpretation," Levin said in a brief interview today, addressing the administration’s claim that the U.S. intervention in Libya did not amount to a war. "But that’s not the point. The point is that regardless of what one’s position is on the interpretation of the word hostilities, nonetheless the question is whether or not you support or oppose continuing that mission."

McCain doesn’t even believe that the War Powers Resolution is consitutionally valid, but still thinks that the U.S. actions in Libya amounted to war. "When you’re sending out Predators and killing people and doing other things, that’s conflict," McCain told The Cable today.

In a brief Tuesday interview with The Cable on the miniature subway that connects the Capitol to the Hart office building, Kerry said his bill could be marked up as early as June 28, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets. He acknowledged that there will be several amendments, and said that when it will reach the Senate floor will depend on the judgment of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

If Reid doesn’t start the debate immediately – and doing so would require him to sideline a lot of other pressing business — the bill would then be pushed until after the July 4 recess. The earliest it could then come up for debate would be July 12.

And that’s just the beginning of the challenges that the resolution will face. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking Republican on Kerry’s committee, told The Cable today that Kerry’s resolution won’t be the only game in town.

"We’re going to have lots of resolutions. That will not be the only resolution offered," he said in a brief interview in the basement of the Capitol, pointing out that SFRC will hold a hearing next Tuesday "as to why there is any conceivable justification for the war at all."

No matter what resolution the Senate comes up with to authorize the Libya war, Lugar will be voting no.

"I oppose our going to war with Libya. Libya was not a security threat to the United States," he said.

Many other Republicans are holding back on declaring their support for the Libya intervention, at least until the Obama administration fulfills their demands for more information about the mission, and a timeline for its completion.

"I hope Sen. Reid will give us some floor time and we’ll have a debate. There are certainly a variety of views, it certainly won’t be a rubber stamp for what the president is asking for," Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Cable near the elevators that lead to the GOP caucus lunch room. Cornyn has his own resolution, which explicitly calls for regime change.

"I’d like to know what the president’s plan is, as far as I can it’s all being done ad hoc. I think that should be a minimum requirement that we get a plan from the president," Cornyn said. "I think people are frustrated that the president has ignored Congress and ignored the Constitutional role that the Congress is supposed to play."

The administration argues that it has consulted Congress several times, but many senators are unhappy with the quality of the information. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) told The Cable Tuesday that he was finally given a briefing June 10 by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and others but that it did not pass muster.

"It was one of the weakest briefings I’ve ever had. I thought it was very, very weak," Sessions said. He wants better information from the administration before he decides whether to vote to endorse the Libya war.

"I’m not prepared to endorse that now. I’m very unhappy with the administration’s position on Libya. It’s stunningly deficient," he said. However, he added that the mission would be in the national interest if Qaddafi could be removed effectively.

Of course, there will always be some senators who are opposed to the Libya intervention no matter what the administration does.

"I would like President Obama to be like candidate Obama, who said we should not go to war without Congressional authority," Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable today. He also has a Libya resolution that opposes the use of force altogether.

Meanwhile, the House GOP isn’t waiting for the Senate to act on Libya. The House could vote as early as Thursday on a defense bill that includes language to defund the Libya intervention barring increased information and communication from the White House. While that bill wouldn’t become law unless the Senate concurs, it does highlight the split inside the GOP on how to proceed.

"I think they’re trying to have it both ways, to have their cake and eat it too," Levin said about the House GOP. "They want to say to the president ‘send us an explanation’ rather than taking a position as to whether to continue to support this NATO mission or not. I think people know enough to know whether or not they believe they support the mission. And they ought to take a position on it, rather than just attack the president because he hasn’t adequately consulted."

Cornyn disagreed, saying that the House GOP is not necessarily opposed to the intervention or becoming more isolationist, as some have alleged — they just want more details.

"I don’t think its isolationist to say you would like a plan," he said.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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