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Libyan Conflict Begins to Fracture Senate

Just like the House before it, the Libyan conflict began to splinter the Senate this week as support diminished for a nonbinding resolution expressing approval for U.S. military action in the war-torn North African country.

The authors of that resolution, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they were not sure whether the Foreign Relations Committee would be able to proceed with a markup of their bill. The panel had been scheduled to consider it Thursday, but the Senators canceled it when it became clear they did not have the votes for passage.

Instead, the Obama administration will conduct a classified briefing on Libya for Members on Thursday. Kerry indicated that Senators’ reaction to the briefing could determine the way forward.

“What I think it will create is perhaps some clarity about what we need or don’t need to do,” he said.

Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) published an opinion piece in Monday’s Washington Post criticizing the Kerry-McCain resolution and urging the Senate to follow the House in approving a tougher measure that calls on the White House to provide a justification for U.S. military involvement in Libya within two weeks. The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes in Libya for more than two months as part of a NATO-led operation to enforce a no-fly zone and arms embargo. Protests earlier this year evolved into a civil war where rebels are battling forces loyal to dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Reaction to Lugar’s article motivated Democrats on Foreign Relations to reassess their view of the Kerry-McCain resolution, forcing the committee chairman to cancel the markup. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) joined fellow committee member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) in authoring a new binding resolution intended to more closely mirror the House bill. The Webb-Corker resolution was introduced Wednesday afternoon.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close ally of President Barack Obama and a Foreign Relations member, also pulled his support for Kerry-McCain. In a Wednesday morning TV interview, he announced that he intended to support a new measure authored by Foreign Relations member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Cardin’s office declined to comment on their measure.

However, a Democratic aide said Cardin’s bill was likely to be written as a “joint resolution” that addresses U.S. military involvement in Libya. Kerry could throw his support behind this new resolution, the aide added.

Sen. Bob Menendez, another Foreign Relations member, illustrated the state of indecision and flux on the Libya issue that has enveloped the Senate since the chamber returned from its Memorial Day break.

“I’m looking to see what the language is,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “I don’t support ground troops, but I do support the effort that we have — I sponsored the no-fly zone.”

Lugar, usually an ally of the administration on foreign policy matters, is not the only Republican opposed to Obama’s Libya policy. Foreign Relations member Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) opposes Kerry-McCain, and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has prepared a joint resolution, which he may introduce next week, charging that the president defied the War Powers Act by failing to obtain Congress’ approval for military action within 60 days of going into Libya. Obama did send a letter on day 60 of the campaign expressing support for passage of the Kerry-McCain measure.

Sen. Johnny Isakson said the chamber might ultimately fail to approve any resolution dealing with Libya, because of the lack of consensus on the issue.

“Because there’s such divergent views, I don’t know that we would do anything,” said the Georgia Republican, who serves on Foreign Relations. “I certainly think the administration should adhere to the War Powers Act in terms of reporting to Congress. But I think that’s the issue: We already have a law in place that deals with accountability to the Congress, so I would rather the law be enforced than trying to get into resolutions that have a committee of 535 micromanaging a conflict.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, who follows foreign policy military matters, said the situation could soon be moot given the success of U.S. forces. The U.S., primarily through NATO, has acted to protect the rebels and civilians targeted by Gadhafi.

“I think the president is increasingly likely to win this war and not in the too-distant future. So any action by the Congress is increasingly likely to be irrelevant,” the Illinois Republican said. Asked what was likely to happen in the Senate, Kirk said, “Gridlock, because I think the U.S. victory is impending.”

The House resolution, authored by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and passed last week while the Senate was in recess, enjoyed strong bipartisan support. In fact, its adoption helped doom a stronger resolution authored by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that called for a complete withdrawal from Libya. On Wednesday, the Obama administration said it would respect the demands of the Boehner measure.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that the administration would answer the specific questions about U.S. involvement in Libya posed in the bill in the allotted two-week time frame. Although the announcement by the White House marked a victory for Boehner, his spokesman Michael Steel was giving no quarter Wednesday.

“The White House needs to address the serious questions that Congress and the American people have about its goals and strategy in Libya, and it has a significant amount of catching up to do,” Steel said. “Time is running out, and patience is wearing thin.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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