WASHINGTON — The House's tea party caucus split on a major foreign policy vote Friday – whether to cut off money for air attacks in Libya – revealing a divide on the philosophical question of how often and under what terms the U.S. should intervene in foreign conflicts.
The tea party Republicans overwhelmingly oppose President Barack Obama's decision to participate in the NATO-led operation in Libya without consulting Congress. But 27 of the caucus' 59 members voted against a GOP-led bill to strip federal dollars from part of the American effort there.
The group's chairwoman, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, was among those who voted no. The GOP presidential hopeful said she opposed the bill because it stopped short of halting all United States spending on the conflict.
"There was an opportunity today to limit funding to a Libyan operation, but I could not support it because it does not go far enough. Funds must be fully cut off to the president's involvement in Libya," she said in a statement.
Her role in the failure of the GOP bill was sorely noted by tea partiers outside the Beltway.
"We have no congressional authorization for military action in Libya, but our brilliant GOP leadership did not cut off funding," wrote Judson Phillips on a blog for one group, Tea Party Nation. "Could they possibly be any more gutless?"
The bill would have barred attacks by pilotless drones and other airstrikes but allowed the United States to continue actions in support of NATO. The full House defeated it, 238-180.
The 31-27 split among members of the caucus listed on Bachmann's website revealed that the populist movement committed to cutting federal spending is less united on foreign policy – even when the question is about federal spending.
The tea party caucus members split along the same arguments as the rest of the House over philosophical questions of when the U.S. should intervene in foreign conflict, when it should choose isolationism – and what to do when the president does not consult Congress before engaging.
On that last question, there was little debate. With one exception, the tea party caucus members voted to reject Obama's engagement in an earlier vote on whether to authorize it. That measure also failed, 295-123. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was the only tea party caucus member to vote to authorize Obama's actions in Libya.
When the House moved on to the GOP-led measure to defund the conflict, the tea party caucus, like the rest of the chamber, sent mixed signals. After overwhelmingly rejecting Obama's engagement in Libya, the House defeated the GOP proposal to bar funding for drone attacks and other airstrikes, 238-180.
One reason for the unusual divide: Republican leaders did not lobby – or "whip"_ members on what they considered a vote of conscience. Another: The loosely affiliated tea party movement's preferences were apparently unknown to members of the caucus.
"I don't know, do they have a position?" asked Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., who voted against cutting off funding for Libya operations.
The caucus split on the second bill, with some members, like Rep. Todd Aiken, choosing an isolationist approach.
"While the human rights concerns in Libya are undeniable, there are dozens of countries around the world that are doing similar or worse things to their citizens," the Missouri Republican said. "We are not the world's police force, and we should not be sending our forces into combat without a clear connection to our national interests."
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., joined Bachmann and 25 other caucus members in voting no to stripping funding.
"Once American military personnel are engaged in hostilities, this Congress has an obligation to stand by our troops," Pence said.
Tea party caucus member Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., did not vote.