12:18pm

Mon March 28, 2011
Politics

Congress Returns To Face Budget, Libya Questions

Members of Congress return this week to face a political reality transformed.

During the congressional break, the U.S. military began operations in Libya under orders from President Obama. And the party-line divide over a 2011 spending plan appeared to only deepen — less than two weeks before the sixth temporary funding extension for the current year expires.

Both issues have focused the spotlight on Obama, who was traveling in Brazil when he announced on March 19 that the U.S. had launched a joint military operation with allies to create a no-fly zone in Libya.

The president is scheduled Monday night to address the nation about Libya and U.S. aims there. But the White House has not indicated how actively the president would insert himself in the increasingly partisan budget battle.

Dual Crises: Libya And Budget

On his return last week from a five-day trip to Latin America, Obama was forced to respond to persistent congressional questions and sharp criticism from the right and left over his decision to intervene in Libya.

He held a quickly arranged briefing with congressional leaders on Friday, the day after it was announced that NATO would take over command of the mission in Libya. And he scheduled a face-to-face meeting with lawmakers for Wednesday.

On Saturday, during his weekly radio and Internet address, Obama asserted that the international military effort in Libya had avoided a "bloodbath" there. But he stressed that U.S. "should not and cannot" intervene in every world crisis.

But, he added: "I firmly believe that when innocent people are being brutalized, when someone like Gadhafi threatens a bloodbath that could destabilize an entire region, and when the international community is prepared to come together to save many thousands of lives, then it's in our national interest to act. And it's our responsibility. This is one of those times."

The Senate Armed Services Committee has organized a hearing Thursday on U.S. military efforts in Libya. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, to schedule a similar hearing.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs has also scheduled a hearing Thursday on Libya, with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg scheduled to testify.

Lawmakers have said they want answers to questions ranging from the goal and expected duration of U.S. military involvement in Libya to whether Obama properly or sufficiently consulted Congress before engaging the military.

Lugar wants the administration "to, in detail, outline the goal, the mission, who's in charge, what's the scenario when these things get out of control, and where is the money going to come from," said Mark Helmke, the senator's spokesman.

Cost Of Libya Intervention

With budget battles looming, many have asked how the cost of intervention in Libya may affect the debate. The issue is being watched by budget hawks in Congress as well as policy advocates and government agency heads worried that the money will come out of their areas.

"The Bush administration wore out the welcome of administrations asking for supplemental funding" for war and military action, Helmke says. "There's a lot of money already sloshing around in the Pentagon budget."

And it will need every penny.

According to cost estimates compiled by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the initial cost incurred by countries involved in creating the no-fly zone in Libya is between $400 million and $800 million. And the cost to maintain that zone is estimated to range from $30 million to $100 million per week.

"The Pentagon has pointed out that they can largely pay for these costs out of current operations — and I think that's probably correct," says the center's Zack Cooper, who conducted the analysis with Todd Harrison. "Many of the costs that we were looking at were munitions costs, like Tomahawk missiles," he said, which run about $1 million each. More than 160 were said to be launched in the early days of the Libya mission.

"But the question of cost gets back to how long the operation goes on, and how much burden the U.S. has to bear," he said. "A large number of questions are still not answered — the objective in Libya, how long we're willing to enforce the no-fly zone, and how the burden is going to be shared between coalition members."

Right now, Cooper says, military spending on the Libya mission is such a small portion of the defense budget that "I'm not sure these operations will affect budget deliberations" on Capitol Hill.

During appearances on Sunday morning news programs, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates characterized the Libya military action as going well. As rebel forces continue to push westward toward Tripoli, Gates, however, said that the international operation, could last months — if not longer.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has said he plans to offer an amendment that would strip the Libya operation of funding, a move that is expected to garner little support. But other Democrats have asked for mission cost estimates, and Republican leaders have criticized the president for not keeping them informed.

The White House has pushed back. Spokesman Jay Carney last week said the administration had been "engaged in consultations with Congress going back as far as Feb. 28" and subsequently briefed select senators on intelligence issues and Libya developments.

Carney says Lugar and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) were among those who were consulted and briefed on Libya at a March 18 White House meeting.

Budget Battles

Obama is also being encouraged to get more involved in resolving the budget stalemate. The standoff has pitted conservative House Republicans, who have voted for $61 billion in cuts, against Senate Democratic leaders who argue that deep cuts would undermine a fragile economic recovery.

In a recent letter, 64 senators from both parties urged Obama to increase his role in resolving the current-year budget negotiations.

However, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's response is "hell no" to efforts by majority House Republicans to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, a pet issue of social conservatives, prospects of compromise look dim. Conservatives are also pressing to cut funding for environmental enforcement measures, an end to government-aided family planning and to strip NPR of government funding — all issues that have gotten pushback from top Democrats.

On Friday, two members of Congress closely involved in attempts to forge a budget deal issued competing press releases, each blaming the other side for the Capitol Hill failure to come to agreement.

After Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) issued a statement saying that progress had been made on a deal, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) shot back that the senator's assertion was "completely far-fetched."

Schumer then accused Republicans of being in the grip of small-government Tea Party conservatives and raising the specter of a government shutdown.

The current stopgap measure expires April 8. It's the latest to keep the government running six months into a fiscal year without a formal spending plan.

In May, Congress will be asked to raise the nation's debt ceiling above the current $14.3 trillion. The coming weeks will be crucial in determining what direction Congress moves — and rather than nibbling around the edges of spending, whether it will try to rein in entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.