WASHINGTON — Republican House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday rejected President Barack Obama's contention that U.S. forces face no hostilities in Libya, saying the argument doesn't "pass the straight face test."
Responding to increasing anger in Congress over its refusal to seek its authorization for the military intervention, the administration sent to Capitol Hill a report saying that, because the U.S. is in a supporting role in the NATO-led bombing mission, American forces are not facing the "hostilities" that would require the president to seek such approval under the War Powers Resolution.
The 1973 law prohibits the military from being involved in actions for more than 60 days without congressional authorization, plus a 30-day extension. The Libya campaign has gone on for nearly three months and leader Moammar Gadhafi has maintained his grip on power.
Boehner joined several Republicans and Democrats in expressing incredulity over the White House's "no hostilities" claim.
"Yet we've got drone attacks under way. We're spending $10 million a day, part of an effort to drop bombs on Gadhafi's compound," Boehner told reporters at a news conference. "It doesn't pass the straight face test in my view that we're not in the midst of hostilities."
Boehner raised the prospect of the House taking steps, possibly next week, to limit U.S. spending on the military operation.
In a letter to Obama this week. Boehner said the commander in chief will clearly be in violation of the War Powers Resolution on Sunday and he pressed the administration to state the legal grounds for Obama's actions. The Republican said Thursday the White House report failed to answer his questions and he expects a response by his Friday deadline.
Reflecting the congressional frustration with the administration, the Senate Banking Committee postponed action on legislation designating frozen Libyan assets for humanitarian relief. The move indicates that consensus on the issue remains elusive.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, pressed for hearings on the administration's legal explanation for not seeking congressional authorization.
"We owe it to every man and woman who puts on a uniform to serve our country, and every taxpayer who funds the operations, to be clear that our entry into any conflict — whether in response to an attack on the homeland or a threat our broader national security — has been entered into in a lawful and appropriate manner," Corker wrote to Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat.
The administration report estimated the cost of U.S. military operations at about $715 million as of June 3, with the total increasing to $1.1 billion by early September.
Adding to the congressional pressure on Obama, a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers on Wednesday sued the president for taking military action against Libya without war authorization from Congress. The lawmakers said Obama violated the U.S. Constitution in bypassing Congress and using international organizations like the United Nations and NATO to authorize military force.
Previous presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have largely ignored the Vietnam era law, which was created as a check on their power to authorize military force.
The White House sent Congress the 32-page report in response to a nonbinding House resolution passed this month that chastised Obama for failing to provide a "compelling rationale" for U.S. involvement in Libya.
The resolution gave the administration until Friday to respond to a series of questions on the mission, including the scope of U.S. military activity, the cost of the mission and its impact on other U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the U.S. led the initial airstrikes on Libya, NATO forces have since taken over the mission. The U.S still plays a significant support role that includes aerial refueling of warplanes and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work. Obama has ruled out sending U.S. ground forces to Libya.
"U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors," the report said.
The president has said the U.S. joined the international effort in Libya to prevent the slaughter of civilians at the hands of Gadhafi's forces, a development Obama said could have shaken the stability of the entire region.
Although Obama emphasized that U.S. involvement would be limited in time and scope, the mission already has dragged on longer than many expected. The bombing campaign has halted some of Gadhafi's advances on rebel forces and there are increasing calls from world leaders for him to leave power, but the administration is still struggling to define an exit strategy for U.S. forces.
The report released Wednesday said that if the U.S. were to end its participation in the NATO operation, it would "seriously degrade the coalition's ability to execute and sustain its operations to protect Libyan civilians."
The White House also said in the report that the U.S. is working with Libya's main opposition group, the Transitional National Council, on plans for a political transition if Gadhafi leaves power. Despite initial questions about the council's composition, the White House said in the report that the U.S. is not aware of any ties the group has with any terrorist organization, including al-Qaida and Hezbollah.
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