President Obama's decision to use military force in Libya has the strong support of some members of Congress. But others — both Democrats and Republicans — are questioning the wisdom of getting involved in another armed conflict. And some are questioning the president's authority to take such action without the consent of Congress.
The president announced his decision late last week, when most lawmakers had already left town for a 10-day recess. That's made it harder to gauge the impact on Capitol Hill of the military action that ensued.
The Constitution reserves for Congress the power to declare war, so some lawmakers, such as Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), are unsure whether they approve President Obama's use of force in Libya.
"I think what he's doing is within the range of reason," Sherman says, "but I'm not ready to say yes until I get the additional information, and I'm not sure I'm gonna get it."
Another House Democrat, Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, told CNN this week that he feared the U.S. stance on Libya opens the door to other foreign interventions.
"If the threat to civilian populations is gonna be our new litmus test for military intervention," he said, "then we're gonna be very active around the globe, I'm afraid."
'We Have Not Had A Debate'
Lynch and others want to know whatever happened to a meaningful participation by Congress in the decision to use military force.
"We have not had a debate," Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) told MSNBC. "I know that there was some justification put into place because of concern for civilian casualties, but this isn't the way that our system is supposed to work."
President Obama agreed on that point when he was still a presidential candidate. In 2007, he told The Boston Globe: "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."
Louis Fisher, an expert on war powers, thinks the president had it right back then. Fisher frequently testified on Capitol Hill during four decades with the Library of Congress.
"Constitutionally, he needs authorization from Congress. And it's not enough to meet with a few leaders and talk to them — some sort of a consultation," Fisher says. "It has no legal basis at all."
Is This A War?
President Obama did, in fact, meet with half a dozen congressional leaders two hours before announcing his decision on Libya on Friday. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, attended that briefing. Congress, he says, has not been able to have its say.
"This is not a concerted debate in the Congress on an act of war, a declaration of war," Lugar says.
"If we're going to war with Libya, we need to declare that," he adds. "People need to be on record in the Senate and the House, because this could be quite a long and extended situation."
But is the U.S. actually at war with Libya?
"I have no idea, in a technical sense," Lugar says. "It would be hard to say that you can fire 110 Tomahawk missiles at Libyan installations, even though this is supposed to be a humanitarian act to help civilians, without saying this is a military action. It came from U.S. warships."
Asked what Congress should do, now that military action is already under way, Lugar says it should debate President Obama's objectives in Libya. But first, he adds, lawmakers need to know what those objectives are and how the president plans to achieve them.