WASHINGTON A U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday approved a resolution formally authorizing continued U.S. participation in the NATO-led military intervention in Libya but banning the introduction of U.S. troops on the ground there.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote marked another round in the debate in Washington over who has the power to make war, sparked by the President Barack Obama's decision to commit the United States to the Libya conflict in March without asking the U.S. Congress' approval.
The committee voted 14-5 to approve the measure offered by Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, and Senator John McCain, a Republican, both supporters of the Libya intervention.
But the House of Representatives has already rejected a similar measure, reflecting the division in Congress over the issue and narrowing the chances that the Kerry-McCain resolution, which first has to be approved by the full Senate, will ever become law.
While the Obama administration would like Congress to express support for the Libya mission, it says it does not strictly need formal authorization by Congress. This is because the U.S. military role in the NATO-led Libya operations has been limited, not rising to the level of war or "hostilities" under U.S. law, U.S. officials say.
This legalistic position, which was explained again to the committee in detail earlier Tuesday by State Department lawyer Harold Koh, has angered or annoyed many in both parties in Congress -- even some of those who support the Libya action.
Before passing the resolution, the senators effectively repudiated the administration's argument by adopting an amendment that said continuation of the Libya operations does require congressional authorization.
ALL THOSE WHO VOTED NO WERE REPUBLICANS
The United States and its NATO allies launched the U.N.-backed mission in March, aiming to prevent Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces from attacking civilians opposed to his rule. The mission, NATO-led since the end of March, now appears to have the unstated goal of driving Gaddafi from power.
The panel's vote in favor of the resolution was a bipartisan 10 Democrats and four Republicans. All those who voted against the measure were Republicans, including the panel's top Republican, Richard Lugar, who cited the U.S. debt and two other wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as reasons not to wage war in Libya.
"In light of these circumstances, the lack of U.S. vital interest in Libya, I do not believe that we should be intervening in a civil war there," Lugar said.
Kerry said that now was not the time to bail out of Libya, with Gaddafi "bunkered down in Tripoli" and facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.
"Do we want to stop this operation? That's really what it comes down to," Kerry said ahead of the vote.
The resolution would authorize the U.S. role in Libya for up to one year after the date of enactment of the resolution by Congress, unless the NATO mission ends sooner.
It also says that the removal of Gaddafi is a political goal of U.S. policy, and calls for the United States and NATO to be reimbursed for the costs of the operation from assets seized from Gaddafi's government.
Senator Bob Corker, a Republican who voted against the resolution, said the administration was basically "sticking a stick in the eye" of Congress by finding a narrow legal reason not to ask for authorization.
"The chairman mentioned (that) since no American is being shot, there's no hostilities. By that reasoning we could drop a nuclear bomb on Tripoli and we would not be involved in hostilities, and this goes to the sort of preposterous argument that is being made," Corker said.
Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat, agreed the administration's argument that the Libyan conflict is not "hostilities" was "contorted," but he voted for the authorization resolution.
Koh, in his appearance before the committee, declined to comment on reports that Obama ignored the advice of Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who argued that U.S. military intervention in Libya required congressional authorization.
Since NATO took over the Libya operation on March 31, the United States has conducted 755 strike sorties, including 119 in which the planes fired at targets. Thirty-nine of the strikes involved the use of drone aircraft.
The United States has also been providing reconnaissance, refueling, planning and other services to the NATO-led mission.
The committee voted down, 14-5, a proposal by Lugar that would have ruled out U.S. participation in any more air strikes.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)