Politics & Government

Sen. McConnell won't say where he stands on Libya mission

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell speaks during a campaign rally at the Republican Headquarters in Frankfort, Ky., on Saturday, May 21, 2011. (Photo/James Crisp)
U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell speaks during a campaign rally at the Republican Headquarters in Frankfort, Ky., on Saturday, May 21, 2011. (Photo/James Crisp)

WASHINGTON — Republicans are divided over how to proceed on endorsing — or trying to curb — the U.S. mission in Libya, and on Wednesday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell illustrated his party's political dilemma.

Pressed repeatedly by reporters at a Washington breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, the Kentucky Republican refused to state a position.

"I've got a variety of different views in my conference," McConnell said, referring to the Senate's 47 Republicans.

Asked for his own view, or even a gut feeling, he wouldn't even hint at his position.

The Senate is expected to debate and pass, probably early next month, a measure authored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Their proposal would authorize U.S. involvement, along with its international partners, in Libya for one year after the resolution's enactment. Use of U.S. ground troops would be barred except in limited instances.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said flatly that the measure would pass.

But McConnell's caucus, like the Republicans in the House of Representatives, are split.

Take, for example, fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The state's junior senator was an early and vocal critic of the Obama administration's actions regarding Libya.

In March, Paul and five Senate colleagues sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to terminate use of U.S. armed forces in Libya.

"Our president is unconstitutionally waging war in Libya," Paul said this week.

In the House, where Republicans have a 240-193 majority, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of the Kerry-McCain proposal, "I don't think that's where the House is.

"The fact is, the president has not made his case to the members of Congress," Boehner said. "He has not made his case to the American people."

House Republicans are considering two resolutions: The Kerry-McCain measure and another that would remove most U.S. forces from almost all hostilities in Libya. The White House has said U.S. forces are not engaged in hostilities there.

Senate Republicans, though, include both supporters of the Kerry-McCain measure as well as those who want the president to be more explicit about his intentions in Libya.

McConnell said he usually takes his cues on such matters from McCain.

"He's our most experienced member on foreign policy and defense matters," McConnell said. "When John McCain has something to say about defense issues, I'll listen very carefully."

McCain in recent days has had plenty to say. The resolution, he said, "would limit this authority to one year, which is more than enough time to finish the job, and it makes clear that the Senate agrees with the president that there is no need and no desire to commit U.S. conventional ground forces in Libya."

But McConnell, at least publicly, won't sign on. "I'm being uncharacteristically quiet," he said.

"He's not normally as deferential to McCain," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report. "I get the sense that perhaps (McConnell) does not have a final course of action yet, though he knows he needs one."