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.”