Libya vote: How Speaker Boehner preserved GOP unity and US-NATO ties

In an 11th-hour maneuver, Speaker Boehner derails an antiwar measure that would have required Obama to withdraw US forces from NATO's Libya mission within 15 days.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, during a Republican news conference.

House Speaker John Boehner, scrambling to close Republican Party ranks, derailed at the 11th hour Friday an antiwar measure that had been picking up momentum this week from within GOP ranks and had appeared likely to pass.

At stake for Speaker Boehner was both the loyalty of the powerful Republican freshman class, which has been fixated on cutting spending and entitlements, and the need to avoid opening a rift between the United States and NATO.

The debate this week over President Obama’s handling of US engagement in Libya opened a new rift in GOP ranks. In a rare pairing, conservative Republicans gave a resolution from antiwar Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio most of its votes in a failing bid Friday to force Mr. Obama to withdraw US forces from the NATO-led mission in Libya within 15 days.

Instead, the House approved a measure drafted by Boehner that calls on Obama to provide Congress with more information on the war in Libya. It gives the White House 14 days to come back to Congress with a strategy for the mission.

The resolution is not binding on the White House, but “puts the president on notice,” Boehner said. “He has the chance to get this right, and if he doesn’t, Congress will exercise its constitutional authority and we will make it right,” he added during Friday’s floor debate.

The Kucinich measure, which failed 148 to 165, drew from the ranks of traditional antiwar Democrats as well as deficit-driven conservatives, wary of new war costs at a time that Republicans are proposing draconian budget cuts. Thirty-four GOP freshmen – nearly 40 percent of the bumper freshman class – broke ranks with their own leadership to back the measure.

“Our loyalty to NATO does not trump our loyalty to the US Constitution,” said Congressman Kucinich during the floor debate.

“The president should not be able to simply have wars of choice,” said freshman Rep. Jeff Duncan (R) of South Carolina. “The Constitution is very clear. Only the Congress can declare war.”

“This is a defining moment for us as a people, for this body, and for Congress as an institution,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah, one of 76 members of the conservative Republican Study Committee who voted with Kucinich.

The Boehner resolution is “not a remedy,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona, another RSC member. “It’s a mild rebuke followed by a questionnaire.”

On Wednesday House GOP leaders dropped plans for a vote on the Kucinich measure after it appeared likely that GOP votes would put the measure over the top. In a caucus meeting on Thursday, Boehner appealed to GOP lawmakers to avoid a break with NATO allies and back his alternative.

“Boehner tried to water down and turn into pastels the plain language of the Kucinich amendment,” says libertarian Bruce Fein, president of American Freedom Agenda and a former associate deputy attorney general during the Reagan administration.

“The younger [members] are pushing Boehner. They think he flinched on the budget and are pushing him on this,” he added.

Friday’s floor debate focused both on the cost of the war and on presidential overreach. “There are a lot of tyrants around the world who ought to be replaced, but should the US go anywhere it wants around the world to get rid of a bad guy?” said Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, who voted for both the Boehner and Kucinich measures.

“The Congress of the United States is the body that is supposed to be consulted before we go to war. The president did not do this. We are contributing over $700 million … and it will be a billion before it’s over,” he added.

In a nod to the freshmen, GOP leaders gave freshmen Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R) of Illinois the closing speech of the floor debate.

“The greatest disinfectant to terrorism is not necessarily bombs, it’s freedom,” he said. “But Mr. President, you need to come to Congress and you need to say what our interests are there.”

But even with a conservative, tea-party bump, Friday’s votes signal that there is not yet majority support for pulling out of Libya. If such a measure had passed the House, it would have faced stiff, bipartisan opposition in the Senate, where leaders on both sides of the aisle squarely favor the NATO mission in Libya.

“Neither party at the end of the day wanted to stop this,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “You’ve got key people on both sides of the aisle who agree that we needed to get tough on [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi and don’t want to call off the air campaign, so the debate is legalistic and procedural.”

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