Last week, minutes after President Barack Obama explained to the nation why he took the country to war, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) posted a statement on YouTube first noting Obama’s 2007 claim that “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation” and then adding: “Unfortunately, President Obama has failed to heed his own advice. He has ignored our constitution and engaged us in a military conflict without congressional debate and approval.”
But the day before on This Week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC News’ Jake Tapper: “The United States Senate called for a no-fly zone in the resolution that it passed on March 1st.”
So who is right? Did the president go to war without any approval from the Senate, as Sen. Paul says? Or did the Senate approve the president’s use of military force, as Secretary Clinton claims?
The answer involves a secretive Senate procedure known as “hotlining.” Hotlining is a system that allows legislation to pass by “unanimous consent,” usually in the evening, when almost no Senators are present. Prior to a bill’s consideration, the Democrat and Republican Cloakrooms send out hotline notices – automated phone calls and emails – to key staff. The hotline notices typically include the bill number, so members can look it up and review its contents. However, in the case of the Libya, the resolution was not made public until the day after the Senate approved it.
According to numerous congressional aides, almost no members knew about the no-fly zone language. Most offices thought they were approving a different resolution – with the same sponsor and a nearly identical title – that had been circulating among congressional offices for two weeks.
In a February 22, email obtained by the Examiner, an aide to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sent a resolution to the staff of members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee condemning human rights abuses in Libya. There was no mention of a no-fly zone.
On March 1st, at 4:03pm, a different resolution was “hotlined.” The only information provided in the hotline email was the title: “S. Res. __ A resolution strongly condemning the gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya, including violent attacks on protesters demanding democratic reforms, and for other purposes.”
But what Senate offices did not know was that the sponsors had secretly slipped into the resolution the following sentence:
“[the Senate] urges the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory”
Most staff assumed the “hotline” referred to the previous draft, and had no reason to place a "hold" on a resolution condemning Libya Human Rights abuses. At 6:30 pm, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took to a near empty chamber, and introduced the brand new resolution and asked that it be approved without debate or vote. By 6:31, the resolution was passed.
The resolution is non-binding and has no force of law, but that did not stop pro-war Senators from rushing out to claim that the Senate had just approved military action: “There is a bipartisan consensus building to provide assistance to liberated areas of Libya and to work with our allies to enforce a no-fly zone," a Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) statement released that night read.
Senators more skeptical of military action where the United States has no national interest felt deceived. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tells The Examiner: "Clearly, the process was abused. You don't use a hotline to bait and switch the country into a military conflict. There is no more difficult decision than whether to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way. With no imminent threat to the national security of the United States, the President should have asked for authorization and Congress should have had a thorough debate.”
Sen. Paul is not giving up without a fight. Last Wednesday he introduced an amendment to a small business bill that would adopt then-candidate Obama’s 2007 statement above as “the sense of the Senate.” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) shut down the entire Senate to avoid debating the issue. But Sen. Paul’s motion is till the pending business of the Senate. With Senate action needed to avid a government shutdown next week, Paul, and the American people, may just yet get a debate on military action in Libya.