On Libya, a Split in Congress Means an Obama Win

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The Obama administration continues its effort to outmaneuver Congress on the ongoing mission in Libya this week. On Tuesday afternoon the Senate will hold a cloture vote on the bill approved last week 14-5 by the Foreign Relations committee. It’s a narrow bill that authorizes Obama’s Libya war for a year.

Administration and Congressional officials predict the cloture vote will easily clear the 60-vote requirement; Sen. John McCain, one of the original co-sponsors has told administration officials he has more than 70 votes in favor. There will then follow several days of debate over amendments, including an effort to cut funds for the war, which is likely to fail. By Friday, the Senate may well have voted to approve the Libya mission.

Of course both chambers have to pass it and the President has to sign it for an authorization of military force to have power. John Boehner’s House previously rejected by a thumping 295-123 a similar bill that would have authorized the mission for a year. Democrats voted 115 for and 70 against the measure; Republicans voted 8 for, and 225 against. Those numbers look insurmountable, but administration officials say that if the Senate vote is big enough in favor of authorization they will try to go back to the House for approval before the August recess. There are understandable reasons for doing that regardless of the outcome.

First, the House GOP isolationist movement gives the administration an unusual opportunity to flank Republicans on the right, something this Democratic President is likely to seize if he has the opportunity. Second, keeping political attention on the disjunction between the Senate and House strengthens the administration argument on the War Powers Resolution and whether or not Obama has to comply with it in the case of the Libya mission.

The Hill and the White House have always fought over the constitutional balance between Congress’ right to declare war and the President’s power to conduct military actions as commander in chief. Since the War Powers Resolution passed in the Vietnam era, that fight has been more of a negotiation between the two branches than a clear-cut argument over the law. Any division in Congress strengthens the Administration’s negotiating position, which argues for pursuing a House vote even if it can’t be won.