Lawmakers agree Obama botched Libya action

But disagree on what to do about it

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Nearly everyone in Congress says President Obama has mishandled the war in Libya, but that’s as far as the consensus goes — members of the Senate and, in particular, the House have struggled to find unity on ways to rein in his actions.

In the lower chamber, lawmakers have voted on at least three options: endorse the war, limit it to a true supporting role for NATO or end it outright. None has gained a majority.

It’s the legislative version of the Goldilocks problem: When there are so many choices of action and no consensus, each lawmaker’s desire for the “just right” solution can leave the entire assembly stalled.

More than two dozen lawmakers have voted against all three positions, signaling how tricky it is to try to write a war policy on Capitol Hill once the president has committed troops overseas, no matter how unpopular his decision might be.

“He doesn’t want to lead; he’s leading from behind. From A to Z, rarely could you see a worse example of just lack of leadership,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and one of the 27 House members who voted against all options on the table. “But when I looked at those resolutions, one of them was basically saying, ‘Hey, you can do what you want,’ in essence … the other was we’re going to pull the rug from under NATO, right now.”

Kamani Robinson (center), originally from Washington, demonstrates with others in front of the White House on July 9, 2011, to call for a stop to the NATO bombing of Libya. (Associated Press)

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Kamani Robinson (center), originally from Washington, demonstrates with others in front of ... more >

In the Senate, an apparent majority would like to back the president’s policy, but the schedule has been a problem. A debate planned for last week was postponed after Republicans insisted that the chamber talk about spending and debt instead.

The stalemate has left Mr. Obama with essentially a free hand to continue fighting the war as he wants. That includes U.S. warplanes and unmanned drones striking at targets in Libya, which the administration’s defenders say is critical surgical-strike capability that the rest of NATO lacks.

Overall control of the mission is in NATO’s hands, however, and forces from other coalition countries have started flying more sorties and dropping more ordnance than the U.S., according to the White House.

Congress has not authorized the war effort. Mr. Obama, acting under powers he claims as commander in chief, has shifted around hundreds of millions of dollars in Pentagon accounts to cover the costs. That move has further angered lawmakers, who jealously guard their constitutional spending powers.

That anger is widespread in Congress, but so is the sense that too much is riding on U.S. involvement to halt it.

“When the president commits troops to hostilities, and these are hostilities, I think defunding them is not an option,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat who opposed the three options.

A key difficulty is trying to manage a war through legislation.

Rep. Renee L. Ellmers, a freshman Republican from North Carolina who voted down all three options, said Mr. Obama has not properly consulted Capitol Hill, but she said Congress didn’t put its own proposals through the rigors of committee hearings and votes.

“I remain concerned over this situation and the involvement of our military in this conflict,” she said. “However, I do not think it appropriate to address foreign policy and war during the amendment process, which is debated under a five-minute rule. This is not the right way to go about it.”

Of the 27 lawmakers who voted against all three basic options, 19 were Republicans and eight were Democrats. The group included some high-profile lawmakers: Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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