The American military's continuing participation in Nato operations in Libya appeared to be in jeopardy last night as Congressional leaders, angered by what they say has been the White House's refusal to properly consult them, threatened to block funding.
A row has been brewing for weeks over the perceived failure of the White House to give Congress a say in whether the Libyan action is justified. It boiled over when John Boehner, the House Speaker, sent a letter to President Barack Obama this week giving him until today to explain why the US military is involved or otherwise find himself in violation of a Vietnam War-era law that theoretically gives Congress equal powers to send US troops to war.
Squabbles between the two halves of US government over who has the power to deploy troops arise regularly. But if Congress continues to feel ignored over Libya, the temptation to try to withhold necessary funds may become real, even if the scope to do so may be limited. "The Congress has the power of the purse," Mr Boehner said. "And certainly that is an option as well."
Mr Boehner, who heads the Republican majority in the House, was responding to a 32-page report sent by the White House to Capitol Hill on Wednesday justifying the operations in Libya. It argued that ever since Nato took the lead since mid-April, US forces have played a mostly supporting role. For that reason, it said, US soldiers were not involved in full-blown hostilities and the 1973 War Powers Resolution does not apply.
"We're not engaged in sustained fighting," one senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters. "There's been no exchange of fire with hostile forces. We don't have troops on the ground. We don't risk casualties to those troops. None of the factors, frankly, speaking more broadly, has risked the sort of escalation that Congress was concerned would impinge on its war-making power."
While Mr Boehner said he would await word from the White House legal office today before taking further steps, he hardly seemed impressed by the case made in the report. "It doesn't pass the straight-face test in my view that we're not in the midst of hostilities," he said. "It's been four weeks since the President has talked to the American people about this mission. I think it's time for the President to outline for the American people why we are there."
Thisx week, a lawsuit was filed by a bi-partisan group of 10 members of the House of Representatives, accusing Mr Obama of deploying resources to Libya illegally. The court action was joined by both anti-war members of the liberal wing of his own party and by conservative Republicans.
In his original letter to the President, Mr Boehner contended that "the ongoing, deeply divisive debate originated with a lack of genuine consultation prior to commencement of operations and has been further exacerbated by the lack of visibility and leadership from you and your administration."
With most of the bombing being done by European countries, notably Britain and France, the US role is mostly supplying surveillance and refueling capabilities as well as some strikes by unmanned drone aircraft. In its report, the White House says that it has spent $715.9m on Libyan operations so far, which will rise to $1.1 bn by October.