WASHINGTON — Scrambling to turn back the fiercest congressional challenge to the president's military authority on Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pleaded with House Democrats on Thursday to continue U.S. military involvement in the NATO-led operation.
Defiant Republican leaders pushed toward a crucial vote to cut off funds for hostilities.
Just hours after bluntly posing the question, "Whose side are you on?" — Moammar Gadhafi or the Libyan people, Clinton met with rank-and-file Democrats to explain the mission and the stakes if the House votes to prohibit funds. The administration requested the closed-door meeting.
"The issue today, as she pointed out, was whether or not we were going to abandon what is an effort that our allies have made at the request of the United Nations, the Arab League and others to intervene and to support our allies in this effort," Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said following the session. "I agree with her strongly that ... to send any signal today that Congress is not supportive of the effort to involve itself in a humanitarian effort at the request of a broad international coalition would be a mistake."
House Republicans and Democrats are furious with President Barack Obama for failing to seek congressional authorization for the 3-month-old war against Libya, as required under the War Powers Resolution. The 1973 law, often ignored by Republican and Democratic presidents, says the commander in chief must seek congressional consent within 60 days. That deadline has long passed.
Obama stirred congressional unrest last week when he told lawmakers he didn't need authorization because the operation was not full-blown hostilities. NATO commands the operation, but the United States still plays a significant support role that includes aerial refueling of warplanes and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work as well as drone attacks and bombings.
A New York Times report that said Obama overruled some of his legal advisers further incensed members of Congress.
Reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the chamber will vote Friday on two measures: a resolution to authorize the operation and legislation that would cut off funds for hostilities such as Predator drone attacks and airstrikes.
"I just believe that because of the president's failure to consult with the Congress, failure to outline for the American people why we were doing this before we engaged in this puts us in the position where we have to defend our responsibility under the Constitution," Boehner said. "And that's why these resolutions are in fact going to come forward."
The bill would make an exception for search and rescue efforts, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial refueling and operational planning to continue the NATO effort.
"I don't want to do anything that would undermine NATO or to send a signal to our allies around the world that we are not going to be engaged," Boehner told reporters. "This is primarily a fight between the Congress and the president over his unwillingness to consult with us before making this decision."
Three-term Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said Clinton apologized for not coming to Congress earlier. But he said she warned about the implications of a House vote to cut off money.
"The secretary expressed her deep concern that you're probably not on the right track when Gadhafi supports your efforts," Walz said.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said such a vote "ensures the failure of the whole mission."
Shortly before her appearance, the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued a statement calling for lawmakers to vote to cut off funds, saying the Libya operation undercuts the powers of Congress and is a blow to the constitutional checks and balances.
During a brief visit to Jamaica, Clinton said lawmakers were free to raise questions, but asked, "Are you on Gadhafi's side, or are you on the side on the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been bringing them support? For the Obama administration the answer to that question is clear."
Proponents of the House bill, including Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., the sponsor of the measure, said the administration "should have thought about that before they ignored the law."
In the Senate, backers of a resolution to authorize the operation wondered whether the administration had waited too long to address the concerns of House members.
"It's way late," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "This is one of the reasons why they're having this veritable uprising in the House, because of a lack of communication. And then the icing on the cake was probably for them when he (Obama) said that we're not engaged in hostilities. That obviously is foolishness."
He added, however, "That is not a reason to pass a resolution that would encourage Moammar Gadhafi to stay in power."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said no matter the view of the War Powers Resolution or the president's March 19 move to launch airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces, "either we finish the fight and Gadhafi's overthrown and he leaves Libya and the Libyan people have a chance to govern themselves or a vicious anti-American dictator stays in power, which would be very hurtful to us and our credibility in the world."
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.