Congressional Republicans and Democrats pressed senior Obama administration officials on Wednesday about the duration of the Libya operation and who the rebels are opposing Col. Moammar Gadhafi as the war raged on for a second week with no end in sight.
As Gadhafi loyalists forced the overmatched opposition to retreat from a crucial oil town, the heads of the Pentagon and State Department faced calls to outline the U.S. role at closed-door, back-to-back briefings for all members of the House and Senate.
The sessions came 12 days after enforcement of the no-fly zone began, a sore point with some lawmakers who wanted greater consultation.
"The president has an obligation to clearly explain to Congress and the American people what his administration's objectives are for our operations in Libya," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "He fulfilled this obligation in part on Monday night."
Obama, in his address to the nation, defended his decision to deploy military forces to prevent a slaughter of Libyan civilians. But with Gadhafi holding firm despite the military onslaught and NATO assuming command of the operation, lawmakers have numerous questions about U.S. involvement and how long the U.S. will be involved.
"Where do we go from here?" said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel. He cited various possible scenarios, from Gadhafi's ouster to a stalemate.
Questions about whether to arm rebels
Amid reports of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups infiltrating the rebels, questions about arming the rebels loom large.
In an interview Tuesday, Obama did not rule out providing weapons to the opposition. Britain and the United States argue that the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions would allow foreign countries to arm the rebels. But NATO, which is taking charge, disagrees and points out that an arms embargo exists.
Asked Smith, "Who are we dealing with?"
Obama, in an interview with CBS News, said most of the opposition leaders are professionals such as lawyers and doctors, but "that doesn't mean that all the people — among all the people who opposed Gadhafi — there might not be elements that are unfriendly to the United States and our interests."
Any congressional move to thwart Obama has been essentially on hold as lawmakers await the briefing by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Freshman Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., attracted a handful of co-sponsors for his bill introduced this week that would end the U.S. role in the Libyan operation unless Obama gets congressional authorization. Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is seeking congressional support for his effort to cut off funds for the operation.
The top NATO commander said the U.S. military role will be scaled back in the near term.
"We today in NATO took over the mission and we are reducing the U.S. component of it measurably, and I think you'll see our allies increasingly engaged," U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis told the House Armed Services Committee.
Specifically, Stavridis said that "the strike part of this and the aviation combat air patrol will be filled largely by the allies and the United States will shift to enablers, things like intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, refueling, ... combat search and rescue."
Still, members of the House Armed Services Committee expressed serious reservations about the future U.S. role in Libya.
"It is a mission that I'm concerned as to whether or not its goals are clear. And also I'm a little concerned and believe it's unclear as to who we are supporting in this conflict," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.
Said freshman Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., who did four Army combat tours in Iraq: "I've opposed the actions in Libya. I think we have so much on the plate right now that we need to do to bring to closure with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan."
A new Associated Press-GfK poll found the country split on U.S. involvement in military actions in Libya, with 48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving.
About three-quarters say it's somewhat likely that U.S. forces will be involved in Libya for the long term. Fifty-five percent say they would favor the United States increasing its military action to remove Gadhafi from power, although only 13 percent favor U.S. ground troops, a step Obama has said he would not take.
The poll was conducted in the days leading up to the president's speech.
Of major concern to lawmakers wrestling with spending cuts and funds for two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the cost of the Libyan operation. On Tuesday, the Pentagon put the price tag for the war thus far at $550 million.