By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
7:05 PM AKDT, June 15, 2011
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers Wednesday in filing a lawsuit against President Barack Obama over U.S. involvement in Libya, alleging that the White House overstepped its constitutional authority when it launched the military effort in March.
Amid growing criticism in Congress of President Barack Obama's handling of airstrikes against Libya, a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland sued the president Wednesday, saying he overstepped his authority when he committed the U.S. military to the conflict in March.
Bartlett, Republican Rep. Ron Paul, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich and seven other House members say Obama has violated the Constitution and the 1973 War Powers Resolution by failing to seek congressional approval for the military involvement against the government of Moammar Gadhafi.
White House officials largely dismissed the lawsuit. But the effort underscored growing discontent among lawmakers of both parties, even as Obama has stressed that the continuing operation is being led by NATO and the U.S. military has "no boots on the ground" in Libya.
"He clearly violated the Constitution," Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, said after the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. "This is not the king's army. This is a terribly dangerous precedent."
The administration, in its latest attempt to frame the conflict, asserted in a report to Congress on Wednesday that it has the authority to continue action in Libya because the military is not involved in full-blown "hostilities."
The Vietnam-era war-powers resolution is interpreted as allowing a president to initiate military action but requires a military withdrawl after 90 days — including a 30-day extension — unless Congress approves of the action.
Republican leaders have said that Obama will hit that deadline Sunday.
Debate over the president's authority as commander in chief to wage war is not new. Congress has not formally declared war since World War II. President Ronald Reagan did not notify Congress of the 1983 invasion of Grenada. President Bill Clinton did not seek approval more than a decade later for deploying U.S. troops to Bosnia and Kosovo.
In a report sent to every member of Congress on Wednesday, the administration argued for the first time that the resolution does not apply in the case of Libya. After the initial strikes, the U.S. military has taken a support role in the NATO action, the White House said.
"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 document read.
Still, members of both parties have grown increasingly anxious about the cost and scope of the mission. The White House report came in part as a response to a nonbinding resolution approved by the House on June 3 calling on Obama to provide a "rationale" for operation.
Maryland's two Republican House members, Bartlett and Rep. Andy Harris, supported that measure.
"For decades, the War Powers Act has been hotly debated," Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the Select Committee on Intelligence, said Wednesday. "I think the important thing the president needs to do is communicate with Congress. We need to be involved."
So far, the Baltimore County lawmaker said, that communication has taken place. Ruppersberger said that he and other congressional leaders attended two briefings by the president on Libya in March.
The administration estimated that the total cost of the military and humanitarian effort in Libya has run about $800 million as of this month.
Bartlett was an early supporter of a similar lawsuit filed against Clinton over U.S. involvement in Kosovo in 1999. A federal judge dismissed the suit a month later, ruling that the courts could not get involved in the issue unless Congress and the White House had reached "a constitutional impasse."
A senior White House official dismissed the most recent lawsuit Wednesday, saying past litigation suggests "the likely course of something like this where members seek to engage the federal courts in these sorts of issues."
Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said courts have dismissed such suits on jurisdictional grounds rather than dealing with the merits of the case.
"That's probably as it should be," he said. "The political branches have adequate tools for protecting their institutional interests."
One such tool is the power of Congress to take away the money for military actions. But Bartlett argued that stripping funding is problematic because opponents can cast that decision as an attack on military personnel.
Bartlett has stressed he does not necessarily disagree with the justification the White House has offered for U.S. involvement in Libya — the protection of civilians — but with the method of engagement.
"It's terribly difficult to separate the troops from the effort," Bartlett said.
Asked whether the lawsuit over Libya would follow the same unsuccessful path as the suit in 1999 over Kosovo, Bartlett said, "it's a new court, with new people on it."
Joining Bartlett, Kucinich and Paul are Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Michael Capuano of Massachusetts and Republican Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina, Dan Burton of Indiana, Howard Coble of North Carolina, John Duncan of Tennessee and Timothy Johnson of Illinois.
The lawsuit names Obama and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as defendants.
"We believe that the law was violated," Kucinich said in a statement. "We have asked the courts to move to protect the American people from the results of these illegal policies."