By DONNA CASSATA
WASHINGTON — The House refused to vote President Barack Obama the authority for U.S. military operations against Libya on Friday but stopped short of cutting off funds for the mission, a mixed message reminiscent of congressional unease on Vietnam and more recent wars.
In a repudiation of the commander in chief, the House voted overwhelmingly against a resolution that would have favored letting the mission continue for one year while barring U.S. ground forces, a resolution the president said he would welcome.
The vote was 295-123, with 70 Democrats abandoning Obama one day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had made a last-minute plea in a Capitol Hill meeting.
But shortly after that vote, the House turned back a Republican-led effort to cut off money for military hostilities in the Libyan war.
The vote was 238-180. The funding measure would have barred drone attacks and airstrikes but allowed the United States to continue actions in support of NATO.
While the first vote on White House authority has no immediate effect on American involvement in the NATO-led mission, it was an embarrassment to a sitting president and certain to have reverberations in Tripoli and NATO capitals.
The vote marked the first time since 1999 that either House has voted against a president’s authority to carry out a military operation. The last time was to limit President Bill Clinton’s authority to use ground forces in Kosovo.
Republican leaders pushed for Friday’s constitutional showdown between the executive and legislative branches, with rank-and-file House members saying the president broke the law by failing to seek congressional approval for the 3-month-old war.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he supported the president’s authority as commander in chief. “But when the president chooses to challenge the powers of the Congress, I as speaker of the House will defend the constitutional authority of the Legislature,” he said.
Some Democrats accused the GOP of playing politics with national security. They said the vote would send the wrong message to Gadhafi.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the vote would essentially “stop the mission in Libya and empower Moammar Gadhafi.”
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Jay Carney expressed disappointment.
“We think now is not the time to send the kind of mixed message that it sends when we’re working with our allies to achieve the goals that we believe that are widely shared in Congress: protecting civilians in Libya, enforcing a no-fly zone, enforcing an arms embargo and further putting pressure on Gadhafi,” Carney said. “The writing’s on the wall for Colonel Gadhafi and now is not the time to let up.”
Carney also dismissed the action as just one House vote.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, “this is absolutely the wrong moment for this kind of a signal.”
The defeated resolution mirrors a Senate authorization 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.
Friday’s second vote to eliminate money for the Libya operation would have made an exception for search and rescue efforts, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, aerial refueling and operational planning to continue the NATO effort in Libya.
House Republicans and some Democrats are furious with Obama for failing to seek congressional authorization 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 did not rise to 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.
In a last-ditch effort Thursday, Clinton met with rank-and-file Democrats to explain the mission and discuss the implications if the House voted to cut off funds.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said Clinton apologized for not coming to Congress earlier but also “expressed her deep concern that you’re probably not on the right track when Gadhafi supports your efforts.”
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 of 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.
Associated Press writers Jim Abrams and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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