House rebukes Obama on Libya military action

Bipartisan vote shows anger over war powers

A measure backed by House Speaker John Boehner also was defeated yesterday. A measure backed by House Speaker John Boehner also was defeated yesterday. (J. Scott Applewhite/Ap)
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / June 25, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Most of the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation in the House joined Republicans yesterday in a stinging, though symbolic, defeat of a resolution backing President Obama’s use of military force in Libya.

The resolution, cosponsored by fellow Bay State Democrat John F. Kerry in the Senate, had been in response to criticism from lawmakers that the president needed to seek formal congressional approval for US support of NATO action in the North African country. Even though the vote has no practical effect because lawmakers have not restricted funds for the effort, it starkly illustrated a lack of confidence in the policy.

“I don’t know of any other time when that has happened. That is a pretty shocking statement to the president about whether he should go on willy-nilly,’’ said David Skaggs, a former Democratic representative from Colorado who is cochairman of the war powers committee of the Washington-based Constitution Project.

The vote was not close: 295 votes against — including 70 Democrats, seven from Massachusetts — and 123 in support.

“For me, everything still turns on the basic tenet: I believe firmly that the Constitution requires any president to come to any Congress regardless of the party of either,’’ said Representative Michael E. Capuano of Somerville, who is also among a bipartisan group of 10 lawmakers suing the administration over the operations in Libya.

A few hours after the vote, however, the House muddied its message when it also rejected, 238-180, a nonbinding resolution from Republicans that sought to restrict US involvement in the mission. Backed by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, the measure called for an end of funding for drone missile strikes and attacks by US bombers and fighter jets against Moammar Khadafy’s forces.

“It’s certainly a confusing message,’’ Skaggs said of the two votes.

The votes also demonstrate how, in the otherwise lock-step, hyper-partisan atmosphere of the 2012 House, the president’s decision not to seek formal congressional approval has splintered the chamber along nontraditional lines.

Joining Capuano in rejecting Kerry’s resolution supporting the president: Niki Tsongas of Lowell, James P. McGovern of Worcester, Stephen Lynch of Boston, John F. Tierney of Salem, William Keating of Quincy, and Barney Frank of Newton. John W. Olver of Amherst, Richard E. Neal of Springfield, and Edward J. Markey of Malden voted in favor of the resolution.

Capuano, Frank, and Lynch backed the GOP resolution calling for limiting Libya funds.

The tug of war over Libya hinges on the constitutional question of whether the president must seek authorization from Congress under the 1973 War Powers Resolution when committing US forces overseas, a debate that has accompanied several military operations since the Vietnam War.

Obama had initially resisted calls from European allies such as France and Britain to come to the aid of the overmatched Libyan rebels, but by mid-March he supported a UN resolution that put in place a no-fly zone to protect civilians. US forces led the early attacks to take out Khadafy’s air defense system but have since stepped back into more of a logistical support role.

According to the president, that role no longer constitutes “hostilities,’’ a key word in the War Powers Resolution.

Up until the votes, the White House lobbied Democrats to back Kerry’s resolution.

Capuano was among about a dozen or more Democrats who attended a Situation Room briefing with administration aides, which a White House official confirmed.

Capuano described the meeting as a “last-minute attempt to reach out to people.’’

“If I could have found a way to keep the White House strong and still vote my conscience, I would have done it,’’ he said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney expressed the administration’s disappointment over the rejection of the resolution, saying “now is not the time to send the kind of mixed message that it sends.’’

Kerry’s office declined to comment on the House actions, except to say that the Senate version of the resolution that he introduced earlier this week is still scheduled to be considered in the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Tuesday.

After the rejection of Kerry’s resolution, which was cosponsored by Republican John McCain of Arizona, the House took up the second measure, which called for limiting funding to a few narrow, clearly defined functions: search and rescue; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; aerial refueling; and operational planning.

Arguing that the president had failed to prove why the United States was involved in the four-month operation, Boehner called on his fellow Republicans to vote for the measure.

“Make no mistake, I support the removal of the Libyan regime. I support the president’s authorities as commander in chief. But when the president chooses to challenge the powers of the Congress, I, as speaker of this House, will defend the constitutional authority of the Legislature,’’ he said.

Many in his caucus did not heed his call: 89 Republicans joined with 149 Democrats in voting against it. Those included some Tea Party favorites such as Allen West of Florida.

Frank, who was asked to come to yesterday’s early morning White House briefing but declined to attend, said that the outcome of the votes represented “congressional timidity’’ — a desire to limit the White House but unwillingness to take on that burden themselves.

“Congress never really wants to take responsibility,’’ he said. “Members of Congress want to complain about it, but when the crunch comes, they won’t stop it.’’

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