At 90 Days, Libya Conflict Has D.C. Divided Congress has not formally authorized military operations in Libya, and the White House contends there's no need to do so. Is Obama in violation of the War Powers Resolution? It may depend on what constitutes being at war.
NPR logo

At 90 Days, Libya Conflict Has Washington Divided

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
At 90 Days, Libya Conflict Has Washington Divided

At 90 Days, Libya Conflict Has Washington Divided

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Another U.S. military intervention is reaching a milestone. Tomorrow will be day 90 of the military campaign against Libya. That number is significant because an American engagement in hostilities not authorized by Congress and surpassing 90 days violates the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Now, Congress has not formally authorized military operations in Libya and the White House contends there's no need to do that.

As NPR's David Welna reports, the debate over what to do about Libya is coming to a head on Capitol Hill.

DAVID WELNA: President Obama's position on the War Powers Resolution in Libya was laid out in a 30-page report sent to Congress this week. It's quite simple, as White House spokesman Jay Carney explained yesterday to a room full of reporters.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Spokesman): We do not believe that as a legal matter that our engagement in this mission meets the hostilities threshold set by the War Powers Resolution and therefore it does not apply, does not need to be invoked.

WELNA: In other words, President Obama will not be violating the War Powers Resolution starting Monday, because by his lights the U.S. is not at war in Libya. But Speaker of the House John Boehner isn't buying it.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio; Speaker of the House): We've got drone attacks underway. We're spending $10 million a day. We're part of an effort to drop bombs on Gadhafi's compounds. It doesn't pass a straight face test in my view that we're not in the midst of hostilities.

WELNA: Boehner says as soon as next week, the House could exercise its power of the purse to try to put limits on the Libyan intervention. Meanwhile, 10 House Democrats and Republicans filed a suit in federal court this week, declaring the president in violation of both the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution. One of the plaintiffs is Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett.

Representative ROSCOE BARTLETT (Republican, Maryland): My concern is not whether we should be there or not, my concern is how we got there. Even if I thought we should be there, I would still be a part of this lawsuit because we got there the wrong way. This sets a terrible precedent.

WELNA: Siding with President Obama in this quarrel are several prominent House Democrats. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is one of them.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California, Minority Leader): I'm satisfied that the president has the authority he needs to go ahead and I say that as one very protective of congressional prerogatives.

WELNA: So, while longtime anti-war House Democrats, such as Pelosi, are giving a Democratic president a pass on Libya, their once hawkish GOP counterparts are not.

In the Senate it gets more complicated. Perhaps, President Obama's staunchest defender there on Libya is the Republican he beat two and a half years ago, Arizona's John McCain. This week on the Senate floor, McCain took House Republicans to task for prompting a letter of thanks from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi after they passed a resolution this month chiding President Obama on Libya.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Republicans need to ask themselves whether they want to be part of a group who are earning the grateful thanks of a murderous tyrant for trying to limit an American president's ability to force that tyrant to leave power.

WELNA: McCain has teamed up with John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to draft a resolution expressing the Senate's support for the Libyan intervention. Kerry said their motive in doing so is not the War Powers Resolution.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts; Chair, Foreign Relations Committee): I don't believe it applies, but I think it's good for us to be on record as being supportive.

WELNA: The top Republican on the Foreign Relations panel disagrees. Indiana's Richard Luger says President Obama will be in violation of the War Powers Act starting next week, and Congress must act.

Senator RICHARD LUGER (Republican, Indiana): If the administration wanted to declare a war on Libya, we should have asked a declaration of war and have that debate.

WELNA: Libya also divides Senate Democrats. Illinois's Dick Durbin is that chamber's number two Democrat and one of President Obama's closest allies on Capitol Hill. But he disagrees with the president's characterization of the U.S. role in Libya.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We went beyond supplying technology to supplying support for refueling, intelligence and the like. America is engaged in this conflict.

WELNA: Is it war?

Mr. DURBIN: Well, it is war in the classic sense, and that we are in open hostilities with the forces of Moammar Gadhafi.

WELNA: It may all come down to one troubling question: what constitutes being at war.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.