House Speaker John Boehner will bring up a vote tomorrow to defund the US involvement in Libya, a major escalation of the war powers fight in Congress.

There are three resolutions prepared for the Rules Committee, all of which could get a vote tomorrow:

1) Authorizing the war operation for one year with a ban on ground troops, essentially the Kerry-McCain resolution.

2) Directing the President to remove armed forces personnel from the theater within 15 days, except for those engaged in “search and rescue; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; aerial refueling; and operational planning.

3) Cutting off funding for any support for NATO operations in Libya, again incluiding the above exceptions.

David Farenthold says that the Kerry-McCain resolution is “set up to fail,” and that it’s still unclear which of the resolutions will actually get a Friday vote. But this is a serious escalation from Congress. It appears that Boehner’s decision came out of a closed-door meeting with his caucus, which expressed anger about the stripping of their Constitutional responsibilities with respect to Libya.

How this all came together is a bit puzzling. The Congress was fine with allowing the mission in Libya to go on for nearly three months, before deciding it was a violation of the War Powers Act. I suspect that political advantage is being sought.

That said, I don’t really care. It’s about time that Congress asserts itself with respect to war powers, and if it takes a partisan scrap to do it, fine. Meanwhile, House Democrats don’t seem particularly enthused about the operation either, and want to see the President checked. Incredibly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in her press conference today, “I don’t think [Republicans] are playing politics with regard to Libya, I think they are expressing real concerns.” Bipartisanship has broken out in the House of Representatives!

The White House has stirred this anger by refusing to really engage on the question of why the US is engaged with NATO in Libya, and then trying to weasel out of the War Powers Act by claiming that the country is not engaged in “hostilities.” Even Boehner admits that this is not really about Libya, but how the executive and legislative branches interact on war powers.

The Senate is far more likely to agree to Kerry-McCain than they are to cut funding or force a return of armed forces personnel from Libya. And the Pentagon maintains they can use existing funds for ongoing operations. So by itself the resolution cannot end the US involvement in the conflict. But it can be very damaging to the White House’s effort at unilateral warfare. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been dispatched to the House Democratic caucus to try and persuade Democrats not to go along with the resolution.

One thing is clear – Obama has bungled this massively, and now faces a challenge to his executive authority. Which in this case is fine with me.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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