President Obama almost chuckled on Wednesday when he was asked if the U.S. involvement in the Libya operation runs afoul of the War Powers Resolution -- in fact, it comes nowhere close, Obama said, so he didn't even have to give an opinion about whether the resolution is constitutional. Obama has consulted with Congress on Libya extensively, he argued, and lawmakers' objections about his war-making powers are just political noise.
Although the White House has issued statements on its position before, Wednesday's press conference was the first time Obama has addressed the Libya-war powers debate in person. "I don't need to put on my constitutional law professor hat," Obama said, because the War Powers Resolution was enacted under a set of completely different circumstances. Amid post-Vietnam anger, Congress drafted it in the context of tens of thousands of American deaths, and many billions of dollars in costs, Obama said. No Americans have been killed in the Libya intervention and the projected cost of U.S. involvement -- which at this point, consists mostly of aerial refueling and UAV orbits -- is below $800 million.
What Obama did not address was the reality that the Libya situation has apparently hardened into stalemate. He did not respond to a question about a proposal in the Senate that would authorize American involvement in the Libya campaign for one year, nor give details about what accomplishments would lead to the end of U.S. involvement. And although he restated his position that Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi must step down, Obama did not address a question about whether Qaddafi could leave power but stay in Libya under some kind of arrangement with a new transitional government.
Obama's aggressive defense of his ability to commit American forces to an operation like Libya puts the ball back into the hands of his congressional opponents. House Republicans, led by Speaker John Boehner, have said in several different ways that they believe the president has overstepped his authority, but they don't want to actually cut off funding for American troops involved in the operation. They also have remained silent about reports of recent American air strikes in Yemen and Somalia, said to have killed fighters affiliated with local al Qaeda franchises.
So the question now is whether Libya war skeptics have expended all the ammunition they're willing to fire, including House resolutions and a lawsuit against the president, or whether Republican leaders will keep pressing for some other way to try to stop the American intervention. Under the War Powers Resolution, if both houses of Congress passed a resolution instructing Obama to withdraw the American forces involved with the Libyan intervention, he would theoretically have to give that order, but it's unlikely that lawmakers would take that step, and Senate Democrats, at very least, would block it.
As a political matter, Republicans may already have done the damage they wanted to the president: They've forced Obama to give a very lawyerly, very Clintonian answer about his actions. As we've written before, although the clear intent of the War Powers Resolution was for Congress to put a check on the president's ability to put troops into action, here's what it actually says:
"The President in every possible instance shall consult with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and after every such introduction shall consult regularly with the Congress until United States Armed Forces are no longer engaged in hostilities or have been removed from such situations."
The operative word here? "Consult." As Obama said Wednesday, he has "consulted" with Congress extensively -- he met with leaders before the Libya operation began; he's sent witnesses to the Hill for 10 hearings; and has sent many updates about how the intervention is going. For the president's purposes, he is complying with the letter of the law, even if many observers argue that he's violating its spirit. University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato went so far as to drop the H-bomb Wednesday when he Tweeted: "Obama highly defensive on War Powers Act question because deep down he recognizes his own hypocrisy."
What do you think?