House sends a muddled message on Libya: no support, but funding untouched

In a confusing pair of votes, US House said Friday it won't stop paying for the US intervention in Libya, but it won’t vote to support it, either.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP / File
Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in this 2010 file photo. The minority whip urged representatives to vote against a measure to cut funding for Libya operations, saying that it would send a dangerous message about US commitment to its allies. The measure was voted down Friday morning.

The House of Representatives sent the White House a muddled message on Libya Friday.

After first rejecting a measure in support of US military participation in the NATO-led operation, the House went on to defeat a cutoff of funding for US involvement in the Libya war that Republican leaders had considered a sure thing.

For weeks, members of Congress and congressional experts had predicted that a strange-bedfellows coalition of House anti-war Democrats and fiscally-conservative Republicans would castigate President Obama for his unilateral engagement of the United States in the war in Libya. But when the vote was called Friday afternoon, the House stunned many observers, including party leaders, by defeating a measure to scale back US participation in the NATO-led operation in Libya by cutting funding.

Some observers suggest that the bill felt like a halfway measure by cutting some, but not all, funding for US military participation in Libya. Others point to concerns felt by many – in Congress, at the Pentagon, and abroad – that a vote to cut funding would send the wrong message to US allies and even the forces of Libyan commander Muammar Qaddafi.

Why didn’t Congress cut funding for the Libyan conflict?

One explanation for the defeat, some congressional experts said, was that it may not have gone far enough. Those who wanted an unequivocal rejection of Mr. Obama’s unilateral launching of the US into the Libya hostilities, whether Republicans or Democrats, were unwilling to support what they considered a halfway measure.

The House bill would have cut off funding for US airstrikes while leaving untouched the purely supportive elements of US participation in the Libya mission: such things as intelligence operations, aerial refueling, and reconnaissance flights.

The vote was largely symbolic in any case, since few expected the Senate to go along, even if the House had approved the funding cut.

By Friday, US participation in the Libya war had passed the 100-day mark. That number is significant, because the House rebellion was sparked by what members say was Obama’s disregard for the Vietnam-war-era War Powers Act, which requires a president to seek congressional authorization for “hostilities” lasting over 60 days.

The White House last week issued an opinion saying that the US is largely playing a “supportive” role in the NATO campaign and that what the US is engaged in does not constitute “hostilities” – a view that further infuriated House members.

One concern: What message does the vote send?

Another reason some members of Congress may have gotten cold feet about voting to cut off military funding is their concern over how the measure might have been interpreted.

Even before Friday’s vote, a number of officials had warned that the message sent by a congressional “no” vote on Libya would reach beyond the White House to the Pentagon, and on to America’s NATO allies and even to Col. Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Opponents of the measure warned that its passage could weaken perceptions of the US as a reliable ally. “If we want our allies to stand by us in our time of need in Afghanistan, we have to stand by them in places like Libya,” said the House minority whip, Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland. “We’re either in an alliance or we’re not.”

In pre-vote comments to reporters, House Speaker John Boehner said he did not want the House to do “anything that would undermine NATO or … send a signal to our allies around the world that we are not going to be engaged.”

But officials at the Pentagon said that is exactly the signal a vote to cut funding would send. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Thursday that a vote against the Libya operations would send an “unhelpful message of disunity” to both sides in the conflict.

Unsupportive congressional action in the midst of military action “can have significant consequences,” Mr. Morrell said, pointing in particular to the potential impact on relations with NATO allies.

In an interview Friday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the French newspaper Le Figaro that any cutoff of US funding “would of course be damaging to the Libyan operation,” but he added that he was confident that, in the end, “American lawmakers will take their global responsibility seriously.”

But supporters of the measure, left and right, saw their demand for congressional action differently.

“We call on our colleagues in Congress to exercise their legitimate authority and oversight and immediately block any funding for this war,” the 75-member Congressional Progressive Caucus said in a statement earlier this week. “Before the Executive branch further weakens the War Powers Resolution, and before we attack another country in the name of our ‘responsibility to protect,’ we must recommit ourselves to our Constitutional duty and obligation to hold the purse strings and the right to declare war.”

The funding bill that had been expected to pass ended up losing, 180-238. But while that was perhaps cause for a White House sigh of relief, Obama could hardly declare victory, some Washington political experts said.

The reason? The resolution that would have marked House support for Libya operations for one year was also roundly defeated Friday morning, by an even wider margin: 123-295.

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