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In Congress, divisions over Libya

House leaders seek to ban U.S. use of force in the country, while a Senate bill throws support behind it. The disagreement casts doubt over the future of America's role in the conflict.

June 22, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with a pre-Kadafi Libyan flag behind him, gestures during a news conference in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), with a pre-Kadafi Libyan flag behind him,… (Nasser Nasser / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The congressional standoff over military involvement in Libya sharpened markedly Tuesday when two senators introduced a bipartisan resolution authorizing continued use of U.S. forces, while House Republican leaders proposed to ban American airstrikes, unmanned aircraft and other hostile measures.

The Senate legislation, by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), would authorize "limited use" of U.S. forces for a year, but specifies that no ground troops could be involved except for "the immediate personal defense of United States government officials."

The resolution follows McCain's sharp criticism of what he has called "isolationist" forces within the GOP.

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Rebellion in Libya

As for the House, Republicans will meet privately Wednesday to debate whether that chamber should vote on the ban as early as Thursday. GOP leaders also want to offer a resolution similar to the McCain-Kerry measure, but that is expected to fail in the House.

The House ban, if approved by both chambers, would represent a further repudiation of President Obama's policy and would force the U.S. to limit its role to search, rescue, refueling and intelligence. It would stop short of a funding cutoff, as an unusual alliance of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have sought.

Even without the Senate's approval — which is unlikely in any event — House passage would be seen worldwide as evidence of a division that casts doubt over the future of the U.S. role in Libya.

The divergent approaches reflect a widening divide between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House, where opposition to the Libyan war has been fueled by Obama's refusal to seek approval under the War Powers Act.

The White House concluded last week that U.S. involvement did not meet the law's definition of "hostilities," and therefore did not require congressional approval. Still, White House officials said Tuesday they would welcome the Kerry-McCain resolution.

Despite McCain's influential voice, differences within the GOP persist. At a closed-door lunch Tuesday, several Republican senators spoke on different sides of the issue.

"It is time to authorize the president's use of force, whether he thinks he needs it or not," said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Senate was not expected to take up the measure until after the July 4 recess, although a committee vote could come next week.

The cost of U.S. involvement in Libya has been estimated at $700 million so far, and comes at a time of growing impatience with wars and deficit spending.

Before now, leaders of both parties in Congress have been reluctant to allow a vote that could force a U.S. withdrawal from the NATO-led mission.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) faces the difficult task of balancing growing frustration over the war within his caucus with a less vocal but hawkish flank that does not want to halt funds for the Libya mission.

This month, Boehner headed off a liberal-led proposal to curtail funding by offering an alternative that pressed for a thorough White House justification of U.S. involvement. Although the maneuver worked, dozens of Republicans voted for the funding cutoff measure by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio).

In the intervening weeks, congressional opposition has been fanned by the White House stance on the War Powers Act, a law that many Republicans consider unconstitutional.

"Our members are very frustrated," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said Tuesday.

Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appealed on behalf of Libyans fighting for freedom.

"This is a resolution and a debate about what America stands for," he said of the Senate measure. "Are we willing to support the legitimate aspirations of the people of Libya? And if not, who could trust us again?"

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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