By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As leading U.S. senators discuss whether Congress should retroactively approve military operations in Libya, the Senate on Tuesday sidestepped a chance to reassert the war powers of Congress.
The Senate blocked a vote on a proposal by Rand Paul, a freshman senator and Tea Party Republican, aimed at reaffirming the constitutional authority of Congress to declare war.
The problem with Paul's amendment, as seen by many members of the Democratic majority, was that it quoted then-Senator Barack Obama's words from 2007 in what appeared to be an attempt to embarrass the Democratic president.
Back in 2007, Senator Obama told the Boston Globe "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 (U.S.) nation."
Paul said he wanted the Senate to endorse Obama's past words and thus establish that the president had overreached in authorizing the U.S. action in Libya last month without first obtaining Congress' approval.
Paul's proposal was "too cute by half," declared Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday after she joined other senators in voting to table it, 90-10.
Paul had trouble getting even his fellow Republicans to support his idea. Some said they didn't approve of where he had chosen to offer his war powers amendment -- on legislation to do with small businesses. "I think we need to address Libya, when (that's) the focus," said Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, after the vote.
Obama briefed leading members of Congress the day before launching attacks on Libya last month, but did not seek debate or vote in Congress, as some lawmakers say he should have.
Article I of the U.S. Constitution says Congress has the power to declare war. But Article 2 says the president is "Commander in Chief" of the armed forces. This has been a source of friction between the two branches for decades.
"I am amazed that this body does not take the time to debate whether we should be in Libya," Paul said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "Some say we'll debate it next week. ... The debate should occur before we go to war," Paul told senators.
Indeed, leading senators have been discussing for days whether to retroactively authorize U.S. military intervention in Libya. But they haven't been able to agree on a draft text.
"We don't know yet (whether there will be a resolution). We're just discussing it informally," said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat who has been supportive of the Libyan intervention.
"I think there should be an expression from Congress" about the war, the Senate's number two Republican, Jon Kyl, told reporters. "The problem has been getting a consensus on what that is. It hasn't been easy."
Kyl said Republican Senator John McCain, a supporter of the Libya war, was trying to get agreement with Democrats.
The House has been waiting to see what the Senate would do, But some lawmakers, like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard McKeon, a Republican, doubt the House could pass a resolution now that would approve the operation.