One motion, introduced by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the powerful top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, would authorize U.S. forces to operate inside Libya in an effort to keep the situation there from deteriorating into a stalemate between strongman Moammar Gadhafi and the rebels.
"Rather than playing a support role within NATO, America should be leading," McCain said at an Armed Services panel hearing April 7. "Our military should be actively engaged in degrading Gadhafi's forces in the field, which could significantly increase the pressure on his regime and the odds that it will crack."
But fellow GOP Sens. John Ensign of Nevada and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas disagree. Indeed, they argue, the United States has no vital interest in Libya.
They have introduced a resolution to declare that there is no vital U.S. interest in Libya, that Congress has not authorized military power in the region and that NATO and Arab nations that do have a vital interest in the region should increase their military and financial contributions to the effort in Libya. "The president should never commit our military forces to battle unless there is a vital national security interest at stake and without authorization from Congress," Hutchison said. "The conflict in Libya does not meet this test."
Ensign said, "I believe that the Senate needs to pass this resolution declaring that our country has no vital interest in Libya so that we can get our servicemen and women out of there once and for all."
Obama Says Libya Is of Strategic Interest
The Obama administration is likely to disagree with both measures.
The administration, reluctant to get involved in the conflict in the first place, has stressed it would only do so with international backing. McCain's resolution authorizing the use of ground forces could be at odds with the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, which specifically prohibits an occupying force in the country.
And the administration has argued that Libya is of strategic interest to the United States. Privately, administration officials worry that if Gadhafi were to win out against the rebels, it would cast a chill on the so-called Arab Spring movement that has toppled dictators throughout the Middle East.
Libya: Calls for Full Congressional Debate
Ensign and Hutchison, however, are hardly alone in their calls for a full debate in Congress on U.S. involvement in the Libyan conflict. Sen. Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations panel, has argued that President Obama should have asked for congressional approval first, while Democrats such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich have gone so far as to call the administration's intervention an "impeachable offense."
The debate in Congress takes place as the Obama administration is engaged in its own debate with NATO allies who would like to see the United States resume a more active role in the operation.
After providing the overwhelming number of missile and air strikes inside Libya when coalition attacks first began, the United States quickly transferred the lead to NATO and has limited its involvement to a support role with surveillance and refueling aircraft, although it has kept up some bombing runs on Gadhafi's remaining air-defense assets.
In a meeting on the sidelines of a NATO conference in Berlin Thursday, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe appealed directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but was unable to secure a firm commitment. "I think they will continue along the same lines," Juppe said of the United States, "which is to say punctual interventions when it is necessary and where the means they have are particularly useful."
With lawmakers in the House and Senate leaving Washington today for a two-week Passover and Easter break, that debate might be eclipsed by events by the time they return to Capitol Hill in early May. And it is unlikely to occur even then. In addition, McCain's resolution and Ensign and Hutchison's resolution are non-binding, so the administration would not have to abide by either one if they passed.