By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON — The House harshly scolded President Barack Obama on Friday for launching U.S. military forces against Libya without congressional approval, fiercely disputing constitutional powers and flashing bipartisan frustration over a nearly three-month-old conflict with no end in sight.
However, lawmakers stopped short of a more draconian resolution to order an outright end to U.S. involvement in Libya. They rejected that measure, 265-148, with anti-war Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio winning the votes of 87 Republicans and 61 Democrats.
Over White House objections, the House did adopt a resolution chastising Obama for failing to provide a “compelling rationale” for the Libyan mission and demanding answers in the next 14 days on the operation’s objective, its costs and its impact on the nation’s two other wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resolution, though non-binding, says U.S. ground forces must not be used in the conflict except to rescue an American service member.
The vote was 268-145 for the measure by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, with 45 Democrats joining 223 Republicans in a challenge to the Democratic president.
The resolution will not affect current military operations to aid the rebels who are battling Moammar Gadhafi’s forces. 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.
The hours of debate reflected the anger among House members over Obama’s treatment of Congress, over tea party concerns about constitutional authority and expensive military operations in tough fiscal times and the nation’s growing weariness over war — in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
Obama ordered air strikes in March after a U.N. resolution and limited consultation with Congress. The Constitution says Congress has the power to declare war, and the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires the president to obtain congressional authorization within 60 days of the start of military operations, a deadline that passed last month.
“This is a defining moment for the Constitution,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. “For the president to suggest he got approval from the United Nations is offensive and is wrong. We must stand tall and true to the Constitution.”
Democrats as well as Republicans criticized the commander in chief.
“Shall the president, like the king of England, be a dictator on foreign policy?” asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “The authors of the Constitution said we don’t trust kings.”
Freshman Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., revived candidate Obama’s words from December 2007 when he said the president does not have the constitutional power to unilaterally authorize a military attack unless there is an imminent threat to the nation.
“The current president got it right in 2007,” Scott said.
The White House pushed back against both resolutions, with spokesman Josh Earnest calling them “unnecessary and unhelpful.”
“It is the view of this administration that we’ve acted in accordance with the war powers act because of these regular consultations,” Earnest said aboard Air Force One en route to Toledo, Ohio.
Not so, scoffed Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
“What did he do, send a tweet to the chairman of the Armed Services and Intelligence committees?” Gingrey asked mockingly during the debate.
In Libya on Friday, rebels contended they had forced Gadhafi’s troops from three western towns and had broken the siege on another as NATO jets bombed 10 targets across the country.
The military action, in addition to the first publicized diplomatic contact between China and the rebel leaders, appeared to reflect continued erosion of Gadhafi’s power since the uprisings challenging his 42-year rule began in February.
In Congress, Boehner had hastily pulled together his resolution after both parties realized the Kucinich measure was gaining ground this week. A vote on Kucinich slated for Wednesday was abruptly postponed.
Boehner assailed the administration for failing to answer several questions about the operation, and lawmakers made clear that if the president doesn’t cooperate they have control of taxpayer dollars for the military.
“Today’s debate on Libya is the first step, and clearly there’s information that we want from the administration that we asked for in this resolution and it’s information that we expect to get,” he told reporters. “But there isn’t any question in my mind that Congress is going to take further action in the weeks to come.”
Several Democrats suggested the Boehner resolution was toothless, with no force of law and merely an opportunity to criticize the president.
“It’s a non-binding resolution that takes pot shots at the president,” said Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The House stopped short of abandoning the mission against the widely reviled Gadhafi and angering NATO allies who have come to America’s aid in Afghanistan.
“The news that the U.S. House of Representatives had mandated a withdrawal of U.S. forces would send a ray of sunshine into the hole in which Gadhafi is currently hiding,” warned Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “It would ensure his hold on power. It would be seen, not only in Libya but throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as open season to threaten U.S. interests and destabilize our allies.”
The president has argued that he acted to prevent a massacre in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and he had the backing of several lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee. McCain and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., have introduced a resolution in the Senate backing the mission.
Obama said when he ordered U.S. forces to support the mission that there would be no American ground troops. Although no U.S. military forces are present, The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that the CIA has paramilitary officers operating alongside rebel forces in the North African nation.
The cost of the mission remains unclear. The Pentagon provided an estimate of $608 million in early April, but more recently some NATO countries were running low on supplies and the United States has provided munitions and some spare parts. More than $24 million in supplies have been provided in the last couple of months under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program.
NATO and its partners said this week they have decided to extend for another 90 days their military campaign to protect Libyan civilians.
“Make no mistake that this issue of Libya is not going to go away,” Kucinich said in a statement. “With the spending soon approaching $1 billion, with NATO openly talking about committing ground troops, we’ll be back here another day to consider further what our appropriate constitutional role is.”
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.
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