WASHINGTON — Some lawmakers are grousing loudly that President Barack Obama sent the nation's military to Libya without Congress' blessing.
They're ignoring a key fact: The Senate a month ago voted to support imposing a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attacks by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
With no objections, the Senate on March 1 backed a resolution strongly condemning "the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya" and urging the U.N. Security Council to take action, "including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory."
There was no recorded vote. It was simply approved by unanimous consent.
No one in Washington is interpreting that resolution as a full-blown authorization for military action, especially as the no-fly zone expanded to airstrikes on Gadhafi's tanks and munitions sites. But the measure undercuts the congressional criticism that Obama was totally off on his own. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointedly reminded lawmakers of that during his marathon testimony on Thursday.
"There have been a lot of concerns expressed about the consultation with the Congress, but in its own way, the Congress consulted with the president, and particularly this body that unanimously in a resolution called for the imposition of a no-fly zone," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Not so, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
She argued that the resolution was limited, praising the courage of the Libyan people, calling on Gadhafi to stop the attacks and welcoming a vote in the U.N. Security Council. Reciting the phrase on the no-fly zone, she said it was "the only part that's even tangentially on this issue" and was "pretty weak language in terms of authorizing the United States."
Gates said he wasn't claiming that the non-binding measure authorized military action, "but it certainly was a manifestation of the wish and the view of the United States Senate on this issue."
He said the administration would welcome another resolution on Libya, a measure lawmakers have been discussing.
For decades, Congress and the commander in chief have fought over the authority to go to war.
The Constitution says Congress has the exclusive power to declare war, but presidents have waged wars without that declaration. As Gates pointed out during his testimony, the last declared war was World War II, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Korea, Vietnam, the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan all have been fought without declarations of war. In some instances, Congress has provided authorization for military action after weeks or months of debate.
Two presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, oversaw the war in Vietnam based on the authority of the Aug. 7, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin resolution, a measure that passed amid reports — later disputed — that North Vietnam had attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf.
After that war ended, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution over a veto by Nixon. The resolution says the president can dispatch U.S. forces if there's a congressional declaration of war, an authorization by Congress or an attack on the United States or its forces. It also says the president can act prior to authorization from Congress for 60 to 90 days.
Presidents — Republicans and Democrats — have challenged the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution. Efforts in Congress to change it have proved futile.Comment on this story
One after the other, lawmakers complained to Gates this week about the administration's failure to get authorization from Congress for the military action in Libya. Administration officials have said Gadhafi's forces were bearing down on Benghazi and they had to act within hours, not days, to prevent a bloodbath. They pointed out that Obama consulted with congressional leaders on March 18, the day before the military operation began.
On Thursday, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., reminded his colleagues that they've had opportunities to update the War Powers Resolution but haven't done it.
"Sometimes we do not take our responsibilities equally seriously with the chief executive in the land," Cooper said. "And that worries me, because Congress should be more than a Congress of backseat drivers, more than a Congress of armchair generals."