House pulls back from attempt to cut off funding for Libya operations

Defying expectations, House rejects move to end some funding for Libyan rebels

The House on Friday voted to reject President Obama’s introduction of U.S. forces into the conflict in Libya, defeating a resolution that would have officially authorized that operation.

But the House then voted own an even more aggressive rebuke of Obama: a proposal to strip away out part of the funding for the Libyan campaign. The House’s surprising mixed decision could ease congressional pressure on Obama, at least for now.

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?”

by David A. Fahrenthold

In an unexpected move, the House on Friday rejected a measure to cut off funding for offensive operations by U.S. forces in Libya, pulling back from an effort to confront President Obama over the three month-old conflict.

That resolution failed by a vote of 180 to 238. It would not have ended the U.S. mission in Libya, but it would have cut off funding for American forces that are not engaged in support missions within the NATO-led coalition, like aerial refueling, reconnaissance, and planning. That would have meant an end to strikes on Libyan targets by unmanned U.S. drones.

This was the second of two symbolic votes regarding the Libyan conflict on Friday. Their mixed results underscored the unsettled politics of war in the current Congress.

In the first vote, the House voted down, 123 to 295, a measure that would have authorized a limited military operation in Libya. Then, just hours later, it declined to further that rebuke by threatening Obama with the removal of funds from parts of the mission.

Many legislators may have been swayed by the argument that, in taking a broad swipe at President Obama over Libya, the House could both unsettle NATO and give comfort to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

“The world is watching our actions today. The world is asking, what are we going to do?” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), a GOP freshman. “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?”

Others may have voted “no” because they believed the bill did toolittle to curtail the Libyan campaign. Next month, Reps. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.) plan to offer a bill that would cut off all the campaign’s funding, including the funding for U.S. support activities.

“We should cease our involvement in Libya immediately,” Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) said in the debate. “I view this as a good start. But I want to be clear: I will not be satisfied until all funds are cut off for this operation, no exceptions.”

The two votes, taken together, underline the dilemma that has evolved in Washington’s political establishment as the three month-old conflict wears on, with no sign that Libyann leader Moammar Gaddafi is giving up.

Under a 1973 law, the War Powers Resolution, presidents must obtain congressional authorization after sending U.S. forces into hostilities abroad. But Obama has said that law does not apply here, since U.S. forces are involved mainly in support roles, and face little danger from Gaddafi’s battered forces.

On Friday, both Republicans and Democrats said that Obama’s decision amounted to an unlawful end-run around Congress. Many said that voting to cut off some funds was necessary to underscore the seriousness of that act.

“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.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner said that the bill to cut funds, authored by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), would send a message to Obama without 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.”

Libya is a relatively small conflict at a big moment. Obama sent U.S. forces there at a time when the politics of war are scrambled by a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Old coalitions of lawmakers have eroded around the politics of the Libyan conflict, as many members have tired of high costs and slow progress. The death of Osama bin Laden--brought about by a small, skilled team in Pakistan, not part of the Afghanistan theater--contributed to a sense that big wars are not the best answer to the problem of terrorism.

And the partisan calculus of war has been turned on its head. After years in which Democrats sought to contain the warmaking powers of a Republican president, Obama now faces a GOP-led House trying to do the same to him.

On Friday, both Republicans and Democrats supported both resolutions, each one a rebuke to Obama over Libya.

But other lawmakers, from both parties, said that a vote to rebuke Obama would send the wrong signal and send it much further than the White House.

“To cut off funding for the NATO operation is to side with Gaddafi against those who are fighting for the values that define us,” Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) said Friday. “The right judgment is to side with the president.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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