Senate Republicans staged a legislative mutiny on Tuesday by joining forces to shelve a resolution giving President Obama the authority to conduct U.S. military operations in Libya.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was forced to pull the resolution from floor consideration amid Republican opposition. GOP senators, especially those who were recently elected, demanded the Senate forego debate about Libya operations and focus instead on the nation’s debt and budget problems.
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The Senate was scheduled to vote at 5 p.m. on a procedural motion to take up a resolution authorizing U.S. military operations in Libya for up to a year or sooner if the NATO-led mission ends earlier. But Republican senators, fresh off visiting their constituents, signaled their opposition. One GOP aide said as many as 37 Republican senators vowed to vote against the motion.
"We came back from recess to talk about the debt and the government and those are the most pressing issues right now," the aide said.
Politically, shelving a debate on Libya is advantageous to Republicans. There are divisions within Republican ranks over Libya that would be exposed if the Senate took up a resolution. Republican rank-and-file senators would also have to go up against two of their most prominent leaders on foreign affairs who back the resolution: Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Ironically, though, Republicans handed President Obama a victory by shelving the resolution. The Obama administration now has a free hand in conducting Libya operations without congressional direction. It was unclear when, or even if, the Senate would come back to debating Libya.
The resolution would have given the administration authority to conduct military operations in Libya for up to a year, or cease operations when the NATO-led mission ends.
But Republicans are seizing on the opportunity to shift focus in the Senate to the nation's debt problems.
Several GOP senators took to the Senate floor on Tuesday calling for the Senate to focus on debt and budget issues.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he would vote against the procedural motion to invoke cloture on the Libya resolution, adding that it would not affect "one iota what is happening in Libya, but it's gonna burn up week's time here while the biggest issue we have to deal with is the debt ceiling."
Additionally, Reid filed cloture on Monday on a sense of the Senate resolution calling for millionaires to pay more in taxes to address the deficit, a move that appeared to be an acknowledgment he would likely not win enough votes to bring the Libya resolution to the floor.
Corker said he expected much of the Republican conference would oppose cloture. “We have lots of members on our side of the aisle that really want to debate Libya,” he said after the resolution was pulled from the floor. “But what they said is they want to put that aside and deal with the most important issue we have in our country.”
Many GOP senators who normally would be expected to support a resolution authorizing military action said they would oppose cloture in protest of the Senate's failure to focus on the debt. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., announced opposition in a floor speech and Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., also said he would "oppose cloture today and urge the Democrat majority to use this canceled recess to begin at once the serious budget work."
Many lawmakers have criticized the administration for claiming that operations in Libya do not constitute hostilities and, therefore, do not require congressional authorization under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. However, lawmakers in both the Senate and House have been unable to pass any legislation affecting those military operations.
“There’s no question that we need to return to the issue of Libya because you cannot have somebody calling something not hostilities when it is. Let’s settle it once and for all. But we need to prioritize,” Corker said. “The most important issue for our country but also for our national security is dealing with the debt ceiling, the debt, and the deficits.”