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Libya Motivates Members to Rally Together

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was told June 22 that House Republicans were scheduling two votes on Libya later that week, she reportedly asked, “Whose side are they on?” If that sounds vaguely reminiscent of an immediate past president telling other nations, “You’re either with us or against us,” welcome to the world of war rhetoric.

It has not been unusual in our history for some in Congress or the administration to call into question the loyalty of those who oppose their war policies. Yet, such slurs offend our core values of free thought and political tolerance. People do have legitimate differences about what directly threatens our nation’s security — what is worth fighting for — and those differences are no excuse for impugning the patriotism of others.

In answer to Clinton’s question: Congress has come down firmly on both sides. I am not talking about Moammar Gadhafi versus the Libyan people, as Clinton implied were the choices. Instead, I am referring to the choice between Congress’ and the president’s war-making authority under the Constitution.

By rejecting two measures June 24 — the first giving retroactive approval to the mission for up to another year and the second limiting the use of funds to nonlethal support — the House performed a painful straddle, as I foresaw happening in a previous column (“Congress’ War Dance Is Often a Salsa Sidestep,” April 12).

Those votes were preceded by two votes June 3 in which the House defeated a resolution calling for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from the Libyan operation and then adopted a resolution calling on the president to respond within 14 days to a series of questions regarding our involvement. The president responded June 15 and concluded we are not engaged in “hostilities” as contemplated by the War Powers Act (even though the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel argued we are).

The Senate, meanwhile, a mere shadow of its former foreign policy self, fussed and futzed for weeks until finally being embarrassed by the House into reporting from the Foreign Relations Committee a resolution authorizing the president’s immaculate air war for up to another year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, then canceled a scheduled cloture vote on the measure, thereby consigning it to limbo.

It is tempting to attribute the conflicting Libyan votes to Congress’ reflexive ambivalence about presidentially instigated wars. However, in the case of the House, at least, I sense a different mood emerging among some in both parties who seem more constitutionally attentive and concerned about Congress losing its rightful role over questions of war and peace. It was this group that forced the GOP leadership to draft tougher fund limitation language on Libya and subsequently offered even stronger Libya amendments on the defense appropriations bill.

Some in the media have dismissed these moves as partisan hypocrisy and anti-Obama hijinks. But I suspect these same Members would have been just as offended by some of President George W. Bush’s overreach on presidential powers and would have pushed back.

Yes, it is true we are further removed from 9/11, and the country has grown war weary after 10 years. Those factors, plus debt concerns, obviously affect newer Members who weren’t here during the intensely emotional outpouring of patriotic fervor earlier in the decade. Nevertheless, just as we had a brief bipartisan moment after 9/11 when people rallied around the president and flag, I think we are experiencing another coming together — this time around the Constitution and institution of Congress — that might or might not lead to bigger things.

For Congressional institutionalists, it is something we have not seen in a long time. It could lead to greater deliberation on policy issues — of Congress rediscovering what it should be about.

It is unrealistic, though, to expect any new institutionalism to diminish the partisan polarization that has permeated Congress the past three decades — at least not until one party gains a large and stable governing majority. In the interim, however, it might help create a more civil and rational decision-making environment in which party differences can play out.

I come back to the Jan. 8 tragedy in Tucson, Ariz., in which six persons were killed and 13 others wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) who had organized the “meet and greet” with constituents.

Just prior to that, Giffords had joined with more than 130 other Members in the House to take turns reading from the Constitution. Ironically, Giffords was chosen to read the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, press, religion, petition and assembly.

Members came together for that symbolic reading and later in their unified prayers for her recovery and that of other victims.

I can’t help but think there are tensile threads running through all these events that are slowly pulling Members together, whether they fully realize it or not.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Congress and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.