WASHINGTON -- In some of the most bizarre votes seen yet in this Congress, House lawmakers from both parties banded together Friday to rebuke President Barack Obama over his steps in Libya.
The House dealt an embarrassing blow to the White House by voting down a measure that would have formally authorized limited U.S. military operations in Libya. The vote, 123-295, was purely symbolic, but it conveyed the level of frustration felt by many on Capitol Hill over Obama’s decision to proceed with military action in Libya without seeking Congressional authorization.
Lawmakers followed with a second vote to cut off funding for Libya, with some exceptions. That bill also failed, 180-238.
The two votes appeared to send conflicting messages on where the House stands on the issue: Why would lawmakers vote against authorizing military action but also vote against defunding the effort? The fact that the defunding measure went down also appeared to be a slap in the face to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who made a case to his colleagues for passing it shortly before the vote occurred.
“By allowing our forces to continue playing a limited support role, it would not undermine our NATO partners. It would, however, prevent the President from carrying out any further hostilities without Congress’ approval. It would exercise Congress’ Constitutional power to provide some much-needed accountability,” Boehner said during remarks on the floor.
“This is a responsible approach," he added. "The House should support it.”
Members in both parties disagreed that Boehner came off looking overconfident on the measure, however. Some said the real issue was that it proposed cutting only some funds but not all. Specifically, it would have cut money for operations relating to “hostilities,” but allowed funds for search and rescue, airplane refueling and intelligence.
Prior to the vote on the defunding measure, its fate “was uncertain. There was no whipping. It was just, ‘Vote your conscience,’” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said after the vote had taken place.
“I think [Boehner] just generally understood everyone is in different places,” Brady said. “I think the message from Congress is not only is Libya not authorized, we don’t want to fund it. Period.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) agreed that the failure of the defunding measure had not, in his opinion, made Boehner appear weakened.
“I think he looked the statesman,” Connolly said, adding that he thought Boehner "spoke from principle” when he said that the proposal gave Members a chance to weigh in on Obama bypassing Congress on Libya.
The Virginia Democrat described an undercurrent of “war weariness” affecting many in Congress. “People are just tired,” he said. “They’re tired of the costs. They’re tired of the deaths. They’re tired of seeing their men and women coming home without limbs.”
In a statement after the votes, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) vowed to give the House its chance to vote on “the most powerful opportunity to end the war in Libya.” He is proposing an amendment to the forthcoming Defense spending bill that would fully defund the effort.
“The American people do not support this war,” Kucinich said. “Congress does not support this war.”
Friday’s votes mark the first time the full House has weighed in on Obama’s decision three months ago to allow for limited U.S. military action in Libya. And their votes showed just how fractured both parties are over how to proceed on the issue.
In total, 70 Democrats voted against authorizing limited action in Libya while eight Republicans voted for it. On the defunding measure, 89 Republicans voted against it while 36 Democrats voted for it.
Among some of the more noticeable shifts: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) voted to authorize limited military action while her longtime friend and ally Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) opposed it. Meanwhile, conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) took to the floor to praise House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for firmly supporting the authorization of military action.
Key Republican voices on war-related matters also ended up on different pages from one another. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) voted against authorizing limited forces, while House Intelligence Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) supported authorization.
“President Obama has failed to explain to the American people what we are doing in Libya, but that doesn’t change the fact that the United States has important strategic interests in finishing the job there," Rogers said in a statement after the vote. "We must also keep our commitments to NATO and our other allies who are engaged in this mission. Our allies, and our enemies, must know that when America commits its armed forces to a mission, we will not leave until victory is achieved."
More telling, however, were the schizophrenic votes among liberal and anti-war Democrats.
Torn between supporting Obama’s efforts to prevent a Libyan massacre and rebuking him for heading into war without Congressional consent, some progressive Democrats appeared uneasy as they stood before the lectern casting votes. Others watched the vote tallies on the wall for several minutes, seeing how their colleagues voted, before they cast their ballots.
In the end, Reps. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), Mike Honda (Calif.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Jim McGovern (Mass.)—all members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—opposed the authorization of limited military action. Others in the Caucus, including Reps. Donna Edwards (Md.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Peter Welch (Vt.) and Jim McDermott (Wash.), voted to give Obama authorization.
“How can this not be war?” Woolsey asked before the votes. “If another country launched attacks at the United States, you’d better believe we’d call it war.”
The votes even split Progressive Caucus co-chairs: Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) opposed granting authorization for military forces, while Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) voiced strong support for it.
“When people are being slaughtered by dictators around this world … I think it is appropriate for the United States to stand up and protect those people,” Ellison said before the vote. “Yes, we do have business in Libya: stopping mass murderers.”
Leading voices in the Progressive Caucus made their case Thursday with a statement calling on Congress to end the war and "uphold the laws that characterize America’s commitment to democratic governance."
But, perhaps in a preview of the disorientation among liberals amid Friday's votes, one Member's name was noticeably missing from the Caucus statement: its co-chair, Ellison.