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Whatever Happened to the War Powers Act Controversy?

Last month's biggest controversy was never resolved—it was tabled as lawmakers moved on to the next big fight.

Call it last month’s biggest controversy, if you’d like.

When U.S. military involvement in Libya passed the 90-day mark in June, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had sharp words—and even a lawsuit—ready for President Obama. They alleged that he’d failed to comply with the 1973 War Powers Act, which requires presidents to seek congressional approval for any hostilities lasting more than 60 days. 

The Obama administration had responded that the United States was playing a support role in Libya that didn’t rise to the level of “hostilities” and thus didn't require congressional approval. It was a legal reasoning that even lawmakers supportive of the Libya intervention ridiculed as flimsy. (Read our explainer on the War Powers Act.) The back-and-forth dominated a news cycle, and the law was brought up at abouthalfofalltheWhiteHousepressbriefings conducted in June.

And then, the controversy disappeared.

“Congress made a big stink about it and didn’t do anything,” University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner told me. He believes the War Powers Act puts unconstitutional constraints on executive power and that ultimately, Congress may not have wanted the responsibility of asserting its prerogatives under the War Powers Act.

“You want us to withdraw in the middle of a battle, abandoning our allies? Congress doesn’t want to do that,” Posner said. “It’s like you want someone to hold you back when you want to fight someone else. You want to look like you’re tough and you’re willing to fight, but you don’t really want to have to do it.”

But Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman, who believes Obama has set a terrible precedent in Libya, said that until Congress dropped everything to debate the debt ceiling, lawmakers were actually moving to address the issue.

“I don’t think it was play acting at all,” Ackerman said. He said that if the Libya engagement continues into the fall when Congress is back in session, the controversy is sure to revive itself.

The previous congressional efforts to force the issue have ended in either defeat or had little more than symbolic effect. 

Last month anti-war lawmaker Rep. Dennis Kucinich put forward a measure calling for an end to U.S. involvement in Libya, but it failed to pass the House. House Speaker John Boehner put forward a resolution rebuking the president, which did pass, but as the New York Times noted at the time, it “was more an expression of opinion” with “no practical effect.” The House later rejected a bill that would have authorized military operations in Libya while also rejecting another that would have constrained funding for the operation. 

In the Senate, lawmakers hoping to quell the controversy crafted a resolution of support for the Libya operation—but earlier this month, Republicans protested bringing the issue to a vote. 

“Just to speak to how dysfunctional the U.S. Senate is, we’re here over the debt ceiling, but instead of focusing on the issue at hand, we’re going to focus on something that’s irrelevant possibly,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, explaining his opposition to the vote. 

Several of his Republican colleagues agreed: “Our debt is our most pressing national security concern,” said Republican Sen. Roger Wicker. The Huffington Post reported that Republicans were planning to filibuster the Libya resolution or vote against it in order to move on to the debt ceiling. 

“I’ve spoken with the Republican leader just a short time ago, and we’ve agreed,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, in announcing that the vote on Libya would be postponed. “The most important thing for us to focus on this week is the budget.”

And just like that, without resolving the last controversy, Congress moved on to the next. The controversy over the debt ceiling continues, even as the deadline for that looms a week away.

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