WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to bar military aid to Libyan rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi but stopped short of prohibiting funds for U.S. involvement in a NATO-led mission now in its fourth month.
Sending a muddled message in the constitutional challenge to President Barack Obama, House Republicans and Democrats signaled their frustration with American participation in a stalemated civil war but also showed their unwillingness to end the operation.
The congressional unrest stems in large part from Obama’s decision not to seek congressional consent for a third war in addition to years-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Congress has allowed the president to overreach in Libya,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “We should not be engaged in military action of this level unless it is authorized and funded by Congress.”
The House voted 225-201 for an amendment sponsored by Cole to bar the Pentagon from providing “military equipment, training or advice or other support for military activities” to an outside group, such as rebel forces, for military action in or against Libya.
Forty-eight Democrats backed the Republican-sponsored measure.
The intent of the measure is to prohibit aid to the rebels such as weapons and assistance to their Transitional National Council, including operational planning. The broad effort also would target contractors in Libya.
In fact, Obama has authorized $25 million in nonlethal assistance to the rebels, including thousands of meals ready to eat from Pentagon stocks. The U.S. also has supplied some $53 million in humanitarian aid. Neither would be affected by the bill.
Moments after the vote, the House rejected a measure that would have prohibited funds for the U.S. military to continue its limited role. The vote was 229-199, with 67 Democrats breaking with the administration to support the amendment.
“This is our moment to reclaim the Constitution of the United States,” said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who co-sponsored the amendment with freshman Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. “We have the power to determine when to go to war, not some rebel power in Benghazi.”
Lawmakers argue that Obama violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires a president to seek congressional approval within 60 days of the first military strikes, a move the commander in chief did not make. Instead, Obama informed Congress last month that such assent was unnecessary because the limited U.S. role does not rise to full-blown hostilities.
Incensed House Republicans and Democrats voted overwhelmingly last month to deny Obama the authority to continue the mission, a largely symbolic vote that was still a rebuke to the president. But they stopped short of cutting off funds for the operation, a mixed message from the House.
In a reflection of congressional anger toward the administration, the House voted overwhelmingly for an amendment that prohibits spending that violates the War Powers Resolution and focuses on future military operations. The vote was 316-111, and represented a spike in opposition in a matter of weeks.
The same amendment by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., to a military construction bill last month had been adopted 248-163.
The House also rejected two other efforts to prohibit funds for the U.S. military operation in Libya.
The votes Thursday ratcheted up the pressure on the administration as Libya remained a stalemate between Gadhafi and rebel forces, and war-weary NATO allies signaled their patience was wearing thin. Italy announced that it was reducing its participation in NATO’s campaign by removing an aircraft carrier from the region and pulling thousands of troops home.
Opponents of the amendments, such as Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., argued that the United States should be allowed to continue the mission along with its NATO allies. He reminded Republicans that President Ronald Reagan had challenged Gadhafi, and the U.S. should finish the job.
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, criticized the House vote on aid to the rebels, arguing that it sends the wrong message to Gadhafi and those challenging the long-time leader.
“I am saddened by the abandonment of America’s traditional support for those struggling for freedom and democracy, which has been a hallmark of our Republican Party for decades,” said the Arizona Republican, who traveled to Benghazi in April to meet with the rebels.
The House considered the amendments as part of a $649 billion defense spending bill that wouldn’t go into effect until Oct. 1. The defense bill includes no money for the Libyan operation; the Pentagon has said it could cover the expense with existing funds.
Last month, the White House put the cost of U.S. military operations in Libya at about $715 million, with the total increasing to $1.1 billion by early September.
Since NATO took command of the Libya operation in early April, the U.S. role has largely been limited to support efforts such as intelligence, surveillance and electronic warfare. The U.S. has launched airstrikes and drone attacks, flying more than 3,400 sorties.
The Senate has delayed consideration of a resolution authorizing the U.S. mission in Libya.
Earlier in the day, the House rejected several amendments that would have accelerated the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan as Republicans and Democrats argued that the nation can’t afford a conflict now in its 10th year.
Obama has ordered a reduction in the force by 10,000 by year’s end and 23,000 troops to be withdrawn by September 2012.
There are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of an international coalition.
Reflecting the desire for budget cuts, the House narrowly approved an amendment by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., to cut $124.8 million from the budget for military bands. The vote was 226-201. A day earlier, the House had added the money by voice vote.
The House was intent on completing the defense bill by week’s end. The overall measure is $9 billion less than Obama sought but $17 billion more than current levels.
The administration has threatened a veto if the legislation is unchanged, citing provisions limiting the president’s authority to transfer terror suspects from the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a prohibition on increasing enrollment fees for health care for military retirees.
“If a bill is presented to the president that undermines his ability as commander in chief or includes ideological or political policy riders, the president’s senior advisers would recommend a veto,” the administration said in a statement last month.
The Senate still must craft its version of the bill and then reconcile it with the House measure.