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The rapidly evolving debate over U.S. intervention in Libya moves to Capitol Hill Thursday, where four congressional committees plan to hear testimony from military and State Department officials about the purpose and scope of the nation's latest armed engagement.
The hearings were expected to be dominated by questions about President Obama's decision to begin military action in Libya without congressional approval, and his apparent lack of a clear exit strategy.
But a new flash point has emerged: whether the U.S. should arm Libyan rebels, who on Wednesday were beating a chaotic retreat from Col. Moammer Gadhafi's forces in at least two cities.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week suggested that arming rebels would be legal under the current arms embargo on Libya. Officials in France and Britain, who have been driving the coalition's intervention, concur.
But with rising alarm on Capitol Hill and within the White House over the prospect and the troubled historic precedent of arming an amorphous rebel force — and one that this time could include members of al-Qaida — Obama has been circumspect.
In television interviews he has insisted that while he's not ruling out arming rebels, "I'm also not ruling it in." The president has already said he has ruled out the use of U.S. ground forces in Libya.
The New York Times reported late Wednesday that clandestine CIA operatives are in Libya to gather intelligence for airstrikes and to make contact with rebels.
The arms issue presents a significant additional problem for the administration going into Thursday's hearings: untangling the legality of arming the rebels.
Experts say that will require making a persuasive case before the committees that the ambiguity of the United Nations' March 17 authorization of military action in Libya allows the arms embargo to be ignored.
But it may be a tough sell for some lawmakers. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) urged that the rebels not be armed and raised the specter of the U.S. history of once arming rebels in Afghanistan. Rogers, who has supported U.S. military involvement in creating a no-fly zone in Libya, said it's "safe to say what the rebels stand against, but we are a long way from an understanding of what they stand for."
Several issues will be lawmakers' agendas Thursday: the intensifying debate over arms and endgames in Libya, persistent questions about whom the rebellion comprises, and to what level the U.S. should be engaged.
Congressional witnesses include Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
Stavridis on Wednesday in another Senate hearing on defense budget reauthorization suggested that intelligence efforts have detected "flickers" of al-Qaida involvement with the Libyan rebels.
Meanwhile, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, moved Wednesday to give Obama congressional cover over criticism that the president didn't consult Congress before intervening in Libya. The White House says it consulted several times with key leaders and committee members on Capitol Hill.
Levin says he wants to bring to the floor by next week a bipartisan resolution authorizing military action in Libya.
Under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the president has 48 hours to notify Congress of military action. He did that in a letter dated March 21.
But without a declaration of war, forces can remain in action for only 60 days. A 30-day withdrawal period is also allowed under the terms of the resolution.
"This is a huge point," says James Carafano, national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "There's the prospect that this might go more than 90 days."
To comply with the War Powers Resolution, Carafano says, there "actually might be a requirement for congressional action on this — even if the president thinks it's not necessary."
Both Congress and the White House are keeping an eye on public opinion on Libya, which has been decidedly mixed.
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found what it characterized as "modest support" among Americans for airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces, with 47 percent characterizing the U.S. intervention as the "right decision." However, 50 percent of those surveyed between March 24-27, before the president's Libya speech on Monday, said they did not see a "clear goal" in the intervention.
A Restive Congress
When Obama's team heads to Capitol Hill Thursday, they won't be expecting the questioning to play out along strictly partisan political lines. And in the House they'll face the wild card of questions from a number of new members who may have little experience in military issues.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has supported the Libyan action and advocated a broader mission. "The decision to intervene militarily in Libya was right and necessary," McCain said, asserting that it "surely averted a mass atrocity in Benghazi," the rebel stronghold.
His committee colleague, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), however, called Obama's bypassing of Congress "rather breathtaking."
Meanwhile, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has urged cutting off funds for the U.S. military campaign in Libya. And West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a freshman Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, has sharply questioned the cost of the mission.
Carafano says he would raise three issues with the administration officials: Where are the military options going, who is the coalition, and who is the U.S. helping.
"There's not a readily apparent decisive military outcome here," he said. "And the coalition is a huge question — who keeps Gadhafi contained? Who prevents a humanitarian disaster if his military goes on an offensive? Who builds the capacity of the opposition to govern?"
The president outlined a bit of that in his speech, but members of Congress on Thursday are expected to press his administration to provide clearer answers.