WASHINGTON — Challenging President Barack Obama's authority as commander in chief, the House pushed toward votes Friday on the U.S. military involvement in Libya, weighing competing measures to continue the operation or cut off funds for military attacks.
"We have drifted into an apparently open-ended commitment with goals vaguely defined," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, as Democrats and Republicans criticized the mission and Obama's treatment of Congress.
"What? We don't have enough wars going on," Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio., asked mockingly. "We need one more war. We have to wage war against another nation that didn't attack us."
The House was scheduled to vote on dueling legislation: a resolution giving Obama limited authority to continue the American involvement in the NATO-led operation against Moammar Gadhafi's forces and a bill to cut off funds for U.S. military attacks there.
The resolution mirrors a Senate measure sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that Obama has indicated he would welcome. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider the resolution on Tuesday.
The bill to cut off funds would make an exception for search and rescue efforts, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial refueling and operational planning to continue the NATO effort in Libya. It has no chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"The president has ignored the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, but he cannot ignore a lack of funding," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., sponsor of the bill. "Only Congress has the power to declare war and the power of the purse, and my bill exercises both of those powers by blocking funds for the war in Libya unless the president receives congressional authorization."
House Republicans and Democrats are furious with Obama for failing to seek congressional authorization for the 3-month-old war against Gadhafi, 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 for military actions 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 Libya 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.
In a repudiation of the president, a coalition of anti-war Democrats and tea party-backed Republicans was expected to defeat the resolution that would give Obama authority for the operation. The fate of the legislation to cut off funds was uncertain.
In a last-ditch effort Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with rank-and-file Democrats to explain the mission and discuss the implications if the House votes to cut off funds. The administration requested the closed-door meeting.
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."
Earlier this week Clinton said lawmakers were free to raise questions, but she 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?"
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 McCain, 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."
Earlier this month, the House voted 268-145 to rebuke Obama for failing to provide a "compelling rationale" for the Libyan mission and for launching U.S. military forces without congressional approval.