Why do House and Senate see Libya so differently?

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 5, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives has sent the White House a strong message: We're deeply unhappy about the U.S. mission in Libya. And But the Senate has signaled that it could send a very different message this week: that it's willing to authorize the operation for a year.

The two chambers of Congress are engaged in a rare national security-policy split, one largely unseen since they divided over how to wage the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago.

Experts are surprised that this kind of schism doesn't occur more often, because most of the reasons behind the split have been around since the nation's founding.

House members have to run every two years in small districts, so they must stay close to public opinion. Senators face voters only every six years in whole states; that lets them be more independent.

Then, too, senators are more immersed in foreign policy, since they alone have to advise and consent on treaties, ambassadorships and other presidential appointments. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee long has been a destination for lawmakers with presidential ambitions, trying to establish credibility on foreign policy matters. It has more influence than its House counterpart.

There's also a 2011-vintage factor: Eighty-seven House Republicans are freshmen, elected on a vow to shrink government dramatically.

"Their (the freshman Republicans') view about Libya has got to do with how the government has overextended itself," said Michael Franc, who was a top aide to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

The House voted twice June 24 on Libya. It rejected, 295-123, the one-year authorization, with 70 Democrats and 225 Republicans voting no. However, it defeated a bid to cut off funding for all operations except in very limited circumstances.

Four days later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 14-5 to allow one more year. Four Republicans joined 10 Democrats in approving the measure, which the full Senate is expected to consider this week.

The practical effect of the split, should it persist, is that Congress won't give President Barack Obama any specific authority to conduct the U.S. mission in Libya. Obama maintains that he doesn't need Congress' consent — despite the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which says he does if he puts U.S. forces into war — since American forces aren't involved in "hostilities" as understood under the resolution. His reasoning on this point is widely challenged.

The two chambers usually don't differ so starkly on military action, but they did in 1970. The Senate agreed then, 58-37, to end funding for U.S. ground troops in Cambodia and Laos and to place other limits on American involvement in southeast Asia. The House rejected the plan, 237-153, a vote engineered by then-Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford, who four years later became president when Richard Nixon resigned.

The House vote on Libya in June mirrored public opinion closely. A McClatchy-Marist poll conducted June 15-23 found that 44 percent approved of how Obama was handling the Libya mission and 40 percent did not.

The U.S. joined an international coalition in March aimed at protecting innocent civilians from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Today, in many congressional eyes, the operation has become a quagmire whose goals are unclear. Members of Congress from both parties have expressed dismay.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, for example, called the U.S. involvement "morally indefensible," adding, "The world is full of bad dictators, but it always seems the dictators America is most interested in are those that sit atop huge oil reserves,"

Even many who backed the one-year authorization weren't pleased. "This is a devastating position to put the members of Congress in," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

Democratic former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, who was once the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the House members' attitude was hardly unusual, since they "are much closer to their constituents than senators are able to be. If anyone has a finger on the political pulse, (it's) members of the House."

Senators tend to have loftier thoughts.

"The Senate has always had a much larger role in foreign policy," Senate historian Donald Ritchie said. Because they run every six years, "they have more independence. They're more (removed) from popular opinion."

They also often have bigger ambitions. The two co-sponsors of the one-year measure are Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., the last unsuccessful major-party nominees for president.

"People like Kerry and McCain operate in a different universe than House members," said Hamilton, the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. "They're in contact with the key players. They (senators) are in a rarified world where they can contact world leaders."

Kerry offered a statesmanlike explanation of why he wanted to give Obama a year.

"It is my firm personal belief that America's values and interests compelled us to join other nations in establishing the no-fly zone over Libya," Kerry said. "By keeping Gadhafi's most potent weapons out of the fight, I am positively convinced that we saved thousands of civilians from being massacred."

For most House members, foreign affairs are rarely a political priority, Hamilton said.

"Members of the House are not usually elected on foreign affairs issues," he said. "They don't think in terms of national security interests. They tend to view foreign policy through the prism of local affairs, more through a domestic prism."

That means, as Franc put it, "I don't think you can separate the Libya votes from other issues, like the debt-ceiling debate."

Comments by Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., a freshman, illustrate that.

The administration has estimated the U.S. cost of the Libya mission at $716 million as of June 3. The federal budget deficit is expected to reach $1.5 trillion this fiscal year.

"We're broke," Griffin said, and continuing the mission "could result in billions of dollars of funding by the American taxpayer that we just can't afford."

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