Despite War Powers Deadline, Congress Fails To Act

It's been 60 days since President Obama notified Congress that he was ordering up U.S. military operations against Libyan forces. According to the War Powers Act of 1973, Congress should have acted during those 60 days, either to authorize continued military action, or to oppose it — because only Congress has the constitutional power to declare war. Instead, Congress has yet to take any action on Libya.

This past week at the U.S. Capitol, you could hardly tell lawmakers were fast approaching the 60-day deadline. The House was not in session, and the Senate busied itself blocking two energy bills and a circuit court nomination before calling it a week on Thursday night. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham says it's as if lawmakers forgot all about Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi:

"A resolution by the Senate where we agree with the goal of replacing him and that we should've been involved would make sense to me," Graham said. "But it's not something I'm going to do unilaterally. I'm just really surprised that no one's picked up the challenge here."

A group of half a dozen GOP senators did send a letter Thursday to President Obama reminding him that the statutory 60-day period for using U.S. forces against Gadhafi without congressional authorization ends Friday.

"I just think it's an abdication of responsibility on behalf of the Congress on a matter of national security, and we shouldn't," said one of those six senators, Texas Republican John Cornyn. "I think it weakens us as an institution, and it also weakens the president's hand in trying to gain the support of the American people whenever he's going to commit U.S. resources and troops into a conflict."

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that when it comes to Libya, the Obama administration had not forgotten Congress.

"The president has been committed from the beginning to act consistent with the War Powers Resolution," Steinberg said. "We will be looking at our own role and our activities as we move through the next period of time, and again, we'll do this in consultation with you. As we look to what we think we can and can't do, we will be engaged in close consultation with Congress on this issue."

Earlier this week, NPR asked Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the Foreign Relations panel, what he planned to do about the fast-approaching deadline for congressional action. He replied:

"We want to make sure we're not stretching anything inappropriate," Kerry said, "so we're looking at some language; we're trying to make certain, and hopefully we'll have a response for you pretty quickly."

In the end, nothing got done.

"Members of Congress have just failed to meet their constitutional obligations," says former Oklahoma Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards, now with The Constitution Project, a legal advocacy group. For Edwards, there's no question the ongoing Libya intervention requires congressional approval.

"This is something that requires the American people through their Congress to say we believe our national security interests require we do this and we approve," he argues. "If the Congress does not approve, it is an unconstitutional reach of power by the president."

It's not clear whether Congress will act on Libya next week with both chambers back in session. Under the War Powers Act, the president has an additional 30 days to wind down a military operation that has not been authorized by Congress.

Some lawmakers question whether the U.S. is even at war in Libya; others seem to prefer steering clear of a potentially messy debate on an issue that divides Republicans and Democrats alike.

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