The two votes highlighted the way that a decade of war has scrambled the politics of foreign policy, and left both parties deeply divided over the Libyan conflict and American warmaking in general.
Even after weeks of debate, on Friday an angry House could not speak with a certain voice.
“I think we sent a message to the president on the first vote,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is tasked with counting his party’s votes. He was downplaying the defeat of the second bill. “The first vote is the vote that matters the most at sending the message today.”
The Obama administration, by contrast, saw a lot to like in the second vote.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was “gratified that the House decisively rejected” the bill to cut funds. “We need to stand together across party lines and across both branches of government with the Libyan people and with our friends and allies and against Gadhafi,” Clinton said.
The bill to authorize the limited use of force in Libyan was defeated by a vote of 123 to 295. The other bill would have barred money going to offensive operations drone strikes or bombing runs.
But it would have still allowed U.S. forces to perform support duties for the NATO-led operation, like reconnaissance, aerial refueling and search and rescue. It was defeated by a vote of 180 to 238. The “no” votes included 89 Republicans, despite the bill’s endorsement by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The next act in this drama will come next week, when a Senate committee considers its own bill to authorize the Libyan campaign--despite Obama’s assertion that he doesn’t need it.
Then, when the House resumes its session in July, legislators could consider a new measure to cut off all funds for the Libyan operation. That bill could attract considerable attention: several legislators said Friday that they had voted “no” on the bill to strip some funding only because it didn’t go far enough.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said that the rejected bill would still have allowed U.S. forces to play a major role in the operation.
“Let’s not enter a war through the back door,” he said on the House floor, “when we’ve already decided not to enter it through the front.”
But, in the meantime, Obama will be free to continue the operation. Legal experts said they saw history repeating here: Congresses, no matter how mad, have traditionally been very leery of cutting funds for U.S. forces that are already in action.
“It shows Congress’s tendency towards indecision on these kinds of questions,” said Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University. “The White House will look at this as business as usual.”
At the root of this debate is a 1973 law, the War Powers Resolution. It says presidents must obtain congressional authorization after sending U.S. forces into hostilities abroad. Obama says the law doesn’t apply to what’s happening in Libya.
By his logic, the situation in Libya--with U.S. forces mainly in supporting roles, and Gaddafi’s forces so battered they can barely shoot back--does not amount to “hostilities.”
In doing so, Obama managed to bring a surprising degree of unity to a bitterly divided Congress. Republicans and Democrats were outraged together.
“It’s a sad irony that, at the same time that we’re committing our sons and daughters to an armed conflict [in the name of democracy], we are also, here at home, trampling on the fundamental separation of powers,” said Rep. Steven F. Lynch (D-Mass.). “A lawful premise for this Libyan operation does not exist.”
But what to do about it? This question revealed a Congress that has been fractured by a weary decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The over Libya debate showed that some Republicans and Democrats were fixated on moral questions--what is the American responsibility to defend democracy? Others were preoccupied with fiscal ones. How should the national debt affect a foreign policy built on the idea of America “bearing any burden” for freedom?
On Friday, those supporting Obama included liberal stalwarts like Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who said “to cut off funding for the NATO operation is to side with Gaddafi against those who are fighting for the values that define us.”
And they also included Republicans like Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who also worried about the message the House would send by cutting funds.
“The world is watching our actions today. The world is asking, what are we going to do?” Kinzinger said. “Now, will we today pull the rug out from under [Libyan rebels], simply because we have a dispute between the legislative and the executive branch?”
On the other side of the debate, a group of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans urged the House to confront Obama as sharply as it could. Otherwise, they said, Congress would be sidelined from decisions about very costly military operations.
Boehner (R-Ohio) said that the bill to cut funds, authored by Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), would have sent a stern message to Obama--without actually removing U.S. troops from their supporting role in Libya.
“It would not undermine our NATO partners,” Boehner said. “It would, however, prevent the president from carrying out any further hostilities without Congress’s approval . . . I believe this is a responsible approach.”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), on the far side of the ideological spectrum from Boehner, said he felt America needed to make a statement that it could not be everywhere, all the time, to defend democracy and fight dictators.
“I believe it is a good thing to get rid of Gaddafi,” Frank said. “But does America have to do everything?”