WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) knocked leaders of his own party Tuesday for lining up votes to defund U.S. military operations in Libya and countered their efforts with his own measure authorizing a continued U.S. role.
McCain, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the House GOP leaders' plan to hold votes this week to challenge President Barack Obama on Libya smacks of hypocrisy since Republicans criticized Democrats for similarly trying to tie the hands of President George W. Bush over the Iraq War.
Democrats "savaged" Bush and tried "everything in their power to tie his hands and pull America out of that conflict," McCain said during remarks on the Senate floor. “We were right to condemn this behavior then, and we would be wrong to practice it now ourselves, simply because a leader of the opposite party occupies the White House. Someday, a Republican will again occupy the White House, and that President may need to commit U.S. armed forces to hostilities.”
The Arizona Republican said it is only a matter of time until Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi falls and questioned whether this was an appropriate time for Congress to signal to the world "that our heart is not in this ... that we have neither the will nor the capacity to see this mission through."
“These are questions that every member of Congress needs to think about long and hard, but especially my Republican colleagues," McCain said. GOP lawmakers feeling indifferent about voting on the matter need to “think seriously about” how such a vote “could come back to haunt a future President when the shoe is on the other foot.”
Obama has been under fire from both parties for authorizing U.S. military action in Libya without congressional approval -- a move that some argue violates the Constitution. The White House maintains it does not need such approval given that limited U.S. air attacks do not constitute the kind of “hostilities” defined by the War Powers Act. Many on Capitol Hill actually support a U.S. role in the NATO-led operation in Libya but are angry that Obama did not seek congressional authorization.
McCain’s warning to House Republicans came as he and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced their own bipartisan joint resolution that authorizes limited U.S. forces in Libya for a fixed period of time -- essentially, what Obama is already doing. Unlike a regular resolution, a joint resolution carries the force of law, so passage of their measure would send a stronger message of support from Congress on what the White House is orchestrating in Libya.
“This is absolutely not a blank check,” Kerry said on the Senate floor. “It says specifically that the Senate does not support the use of ground troops in Libya. And it authorizes this limited use of American forces for a limited duration -- It would expire in a year.”
Kerry echoed McCain’s criticisms of House Republicans for lining up defunding votes, saying such votes send the wrong message to the international community.
“If we pull the plug on our participation, if we take the radical steps that some members of the House are advocating, we will not only doom the Libyan operation, we will undermine the very core of NATO,” Kerry said. “And that puts us in danger.”
But a senior House GOP aide pushed back against the Senators' warnings, saying the Libya operation doesn’t compare to Iraq.
“Let's not confuse the situation,” said the aide. “There was authorization for Iraq. The House is saying if Obama wants funds, he should come get authorization. And procedurally, we're allowing a vote on any amendment that is offered. Some may cut all funding, some may restrict funding for certain operations. We'll have to see what gets offered.”
In addition, House Republicans already “bailed out” the White House once before on Libya, said the aide, referring to the resolution put forward earlier this month by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that gave Obama two weeks to provide Congress with a justification for the U.S. role in Libya. The White House responded by sending a detailed 32-page report to Congress last week, but Boehner said it “doesn’t pass the straight-face test” in terms of its definition of “hostilities.”
“Now that they've squandered the opportunity [to provide a clear justification], we have no obligation to do it again,” said the aide.
Indeed, some House lawmakers in both parties continue to be unhappy with what Obama is doing and want a chance to weigh in. Boehner vowed last Friday that, in the coming week, House Republicans “will review all options available to hold the administration to account” on Libya.
House GOP leaders are meeting privately Tuesday to discuss possible actions to take and will present their proposals to the full Republican Conference on Wednesday.
Separately, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) announced plans to offer an amendment to the upcoming Defense spending bill that would cut off funds for Libya. That bill could come up as soon as this week. He also led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in filing a lawsuit against Obama last week that accuses the president of violating the War Powers Act.
And in the meantime, McCain and Kerry are holding a hearing next Tuesday on Libya and the War Powers Act. Invited witnesses include lawyers from the State Department, the Defense Department and the Justice Department.