On Capitol Hill, A Chorus of Critics (Part II)

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Obama Administration officials will hold a classified briefing for members of Congress on Wednesday, a session scheduled as criticism of the President’s handling of the Libyan conflict builds to a crescendo.

As Obama returned from his Latin American swing yesterday afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner released a letter that raises a series of questions about the world’s top kinetic conflict. Many of them are both fair and important. “Because of the conflicting messages from the Administration and our coalition partners, there is a lack of clarity over the objectives of this mission, what our national security interests are, and how it fits into our overarching policy for the Middle East.  The American people deserve answers to these questions.  And all of these concerns point to a fundamental question: what is your benchmark for success in Libya?” Boehner concludes.

The letter also includes an obligatory swipe that invokes one of the many complaints coming from the denizens of Capitol Hill: that Obama failed to meet his Constitutional obligation to consult the legislation branch before launching Tomahawk missiles at the Libyan coastline. “At the same time,” Boehner writes, “by contrast, it appears your Administration has consulted extensively on these same matters with foreign entities such as the United Nations and the Arab League.” It was, of course, a U.N. resolution that set the framework for military action, and the Arab League is a partner in that effort.

The White House and the Speaker’s press shop have since been trading barbs over the nature of Obama’s interactions with Congress during the march toward intervention in Libya. During today’s gaggle, Press Secretary Jay Carney listed the litany of briefings Boehner and other members had received from high-ranking Administration officials. At one point, when a reporter tried to cut Carney off, the press secretary plowed ahead: “Let me just continue, because it’s important that the American people understand how much consultation there has been.” Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports that on March 18, during a bipartisan conference call with House and Senate leaders, Boehner–by contrast–stayed silent. Brendan Buck, Boehner’s spokesman, argues that the call was not an open policy debate, but rather a courtesy to inform Congress of settled policy. “Consulting implies one is seeking input on if and how to act,” he wrote this morning. “Notification is always appreciated, but it is not a substitute for the long-respected custom of congressional consultation.”

In response to Carney’s laundry list, one reporter asked a pertinent question of the persistent gripes: “Is this just whining?” Carney’s response was that it wasn’t. Obviously it’s to the White House’s benefit to defuse a shouting match between the poles of Pennsylvania Avenue, but I think he’s also right, to a large degree. Certainly there’s a bit of jockeying for air time and point-scoring by partisan opponents. But even those critics have a leg to stand on. Congress has a Constitutional role to play in the process of going to war, even if presidents from both parties have for years effectively launched attacks on their own. (And even though Congress has repeatedly declined to declare wars–even the broadly popular ones, like Afghanistan–that have been subject to robust debate on its floor.) Many members, from Boehner to Sens. Richard Lugar and Jim Webb, have raised key questions about the scope and purpose of the mission, which the White House is working to answer.

Some of those answers will come at Wednesday’s briefing, which will feature Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Others will come in committee hearings planned for next week. Sen. Dick Durbin, the majority whip, has said he supports a floor vote authorizing U.S. military action in Libya, which could come as the first, U.S.-led phase is giving way to one in which the U.S. plays a “support and assist role,” as Carney put it. As we’ve written, for all the sturm und drang, Obama has substantial support in Congress. Next week, we’ll find out how deep that support runs. A bigger segment of the public favors intervention than disapproves of it, as polls have shown, even if the numbers are pretty tepid in comparison with past points of reference. For now, these are the numbers that matter.