WASHINGTON — Returning home to some messy politics, President Barack Obama is confronting a battery of challenges, from a spending standoff that threatens to shut down the government to congressional angst over the U.S.-led attacks on Libya. Foreign crises rage across Africa and the Middle East, and Americans still want the economy to improve more quickly.
The president left behind a wave of goodwill in Latin America as he shored up alliances that the White House said would prove pivotal for years to come. Yet the timing made for political and logistical headaches, as his five-day trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador took place just as the U.S. and allies launched a U.N.-sanctioned assault against Moammar Gadhafi's menacing regime.
Now lawmakers are questioning the costs and objective of the military action while voicing growing frustration that Obama didn't consult with Congress more thoroughly before authorizing the U.S. airstrikes. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, encapsulated much of the GOP sentiment by asking in a tweet, "Is Congress going to assert its constitutional role or be a potted plant?"
No sooner had Obama touched down on U.S. soil late Wednesday afternoon then House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a blistering letter demanding more details about the steps ahead on Libya.
"I and many other members of the House of Representatives are troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America's role is in achieving that mission," Boehner said.
The criticism comes not just from the right. Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has said he intends to offer legislation to block the U.S. from funding military actions in Libya. Moderate Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., an authoritative voice on military issues as a former Navy secretary, said the U.S. strategy lacks clarity and the endpoint is undefined.
Obama, in news conferences from Santiago to San Salvador, has been adamant in saying the main U.S. military role will be limited and front-loaded as allies strive to keep Gadhafi from killing those seeking to oust him. Insisting the U.S. will soon play a supporting role, Obama told Univision, "The exit strategy will be executed this week."
Obama will have more opportunities in the coming days to speak about the fast-changing Libya conflict, if he chooses. No specific address to the nation is planned.
The military challenge comes as the threat of a government shutdown looms again.
Federal operations are churning along on another temporary spending bill, this one expiring April 8. That means Obama has just over two weeks to help broker a deal to keep the government running for the six months left in the fiscal year. House Republicans don't want to budge from the $61 billion in steep cuts they've approved, but that won't fly in the Senate and Obama has threatened to veto it, leaving the path to compromise unclear.
"I can't remember a more action-packed agenda, with two major, urgent items at the top of the list," said Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress and politics at the American Enterprise Institute. "Libya, of course, but with the added twist of harsh criticism of the president's failure to bring in Congress. And the budget battle, which I believe is much more likely than not to lead to a shutdown."
The pressure will be on Obama to intervene in the budget talks.
Also looming is a fight over the federal debt limit, which Democrats cannot increase without some Republican support in both the Senate and House. The administration has warned Congress that failing to raise the debt limit would lead to an unprecedented default on the national debt and wreck the national economic recovery.
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