WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House told Congress on Wednesday that President Barack Obama has the legal authority to press on with U.S. military involvement in Libya and urged skeptical lawmakers not to send “mixed messages” about their commitment to the NATO-led air war.
Delivering a detailed report to Congress to justify Obama’s Libya policy, the administration argued he had the constitutional power to continue the U.S. role against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces even though lawmakers had not authorized it.
Tensions in Washington over the Libya conflict reflected growing unease over U.S. entanglement in a third conflict in the Muslim world in addition to costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and pressure for Obama to clarify the U.S. mission in the North African country.
The 32-page response to lawmakers’ complaints followed a warning on Tuesday from House Speaker John Boehner that Obama was on thin legal ice by keeping U.S. forces involved in Libya for nearly three months without congressional approval.
But the White House insisted that Obama had not overstepped his authority because U.S. military participation in Libya had already been scaled back to a support role that did not require congressional consent.
Boehner accused Obama of failing to respect the role of Congress in military operations and asked him to explain the legal grounds for the Libya mission, saying that by Sunday the president would be in violation of a 1973 law called the War Powers Resolution if nothing changed.
The U.S. Constitution says that only Congress can declare war, while the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.
The White House cautioned lawmakers against signaling a wavering U.S. commitment as they pressed their concerns about Libya. “We believe that it’s important for Congress not to send mixed messages about a goal that we think most members of Congress share,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said, referring to hopes for the success of the NATO-led mission.
Ten members of Congress filed suit against Obama in federal court on Wednesday over Libya. The group, led by Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Walter Jones, challenged Obama’s decision to commit U.S. forces to Libya without congressional authorization.
“With regard to the war in Libya, we believe that the law was violated,” Kucinich said in a statement.
But senior administration officials briefing reporters argued that Obama was not in violation of the War Powers Resolution because U.S. forces, which initially spearheaded the assault on Gaddafi’s air defenses in March, had pulled back to a support role in the NATO-led air campaign in early April.
“We’re not engaged in any of the activities that typically over the years in war powers analysis is considered to constitute hostilities,” one official said. “We’re not engaged in sustained fighting.”
The law prohibits U.S. armed forces from being involved in military actions for more than 60 days without congressional authorization, and includes a further 30-day withdrawal period, which would expire on Sunday.
The White House’s arguments seemed unlikely to defuse tensions with Congress over Libya, where rebels have made only halting progress against government troops and strains have emerged in the Western alliance.
Brendan Buck, Boehner’s spokesman, said the White House had presented “creative arguments” that would have to be examined, but he made clear that Republicans remained skeptical.
“The commander-in-chief has a responsibility to articulate how U.S. military action is vital to our national security and consistent with American policy goals,” he said. “With Libya, the President has fallen short on this obligation.”
The White House report reiterated the U.S. rationale for joining the U.N.-approved air war against Gaddafi — to keep the Libyan leader from creating a “humanitarian catastrophe” and prevent further instability in the region.
It also said the NATO-led mission was making progress and that Gaddafi was finding himself increasingly isolated internationally, but made no predictions on when he might be ousted, except to say it would be “only a matter of time.”
Obama has also faced pressure from some NATO allies to take a more assertive military role in the conflict, but he has resisted and vowed no U.S. ground forces would be deployed.
The debate over Libya comes as concerns grow in Washington over the costs and duration of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, where Obama has pledged to start withdrawing troops in July.
The report said the cost of U.S. military operations and humanitarian assistance in Libya was $716 million as of June 3 and was projected to reach $1.1 billion by September 30.
But seeking to make clear it would not add to U.S. fiscal woes, the report said those funds would be found in the existing Defense Department budget and therefore not require a supplemental appropriations request to Congress.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Laura MacInnis and Alister Bull; Editing by Peter Cooney