Capitol Hill is keen to shape or even halt President Obama's troop deployment to Libya, but lawmakers' own inability to settle on a unified stance is undermining their efforts and leaving the president with a free hand to pursue the war his own way.
The House stalemated two weeks ago, failing to pass limits on Mr. Obama's actions in Libya. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democratic leaders canceled a Libya debate planned for this week and instead turned to symbolic tax legislation.
That gridlock means Mr. Obama remains unchecked in his deployment of U.S. forces to support the NATO mission in Libya and to conduct airstrikes in support of rebels opposing Col. Moammar Gadhafi's government.
"There was nothing we were going to do this week in the Senate that in any way affected what was actually happening in Libya. Nothing. And everybody knew that," said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, explaining to reporters this week why Republicans insisted on debating debt and spending rather than taking up the Libya matter in the Senate.
Compounding matters, the Senate and House appear unlikely to speak with a unified voice anyway. The Senate is more inclined to support a mission in Libya, while House lawmakers clearly lean the other way, including a significant number who want to end American involvement altogether.
In the House debate in June, only two options were on the table: approve Mr. Obama's mission essentially as is, or limit U.S. troops to a true support role, with no air strikes. The former gained just 123 votes of support, while the latter garnered 180 votes, which is several dozen shy of a majority.
The House will try again this week to find common ground.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat and a leading anti-war lawmaker, said he'll offer an amendment to defund the Libyan war operation entirely, and he said it's likely colleagues will offer their own amendments.
Mr. Kucinich said knowing the spending fight was looming, many House members were waiting for the full cut-off option, which is why they voted against the measure two weeks ago to limit the war.
"I think there's a strong majority in the House that was not only opposed to what the administration did, but I think there's a strong majority to cut off funds," he said. "The vote that we had 10 days ago — the division within the membership was chiefly on whether the amendment was strong enough."
Votes could come as early as Thursday — but even then, it's unlikely the House position would be adopted by the Senate, where support for the war is higher.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, on a 14-5 bipartisan vote, approved a resolution authorizing continued strikes in Libya.
That resolution was supposed to be debated on the Senate floor this week, but Democratic leaders, bowing to pressure from Mr. Obama and Republicans, withdrew it and instead turned to debt negotiations.
That's just fine with some lawmakers who said leaving Mr. Obama with a free hand is the best option.
"I don't care if we ever bring this up," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who has advocated a robust military policy, told The Washington Times.
He said the president spawned an "open rebellion" in the House by not consulting more with Congress and by taking what Mr. Graham called a half-in, half-out approach. But he said Mr. Obama's handling should not push lawmakers away from aiding NATO allies and trying to preserve progress in what has become known as the Arab Spring.
He also said having Congress manage the war through resolutions is unconstitutional, and bad policy.
"It's better to have one commander in chief than it is to have 535," Mr. Graham said. "The last thing I want to do is create a model that would basically infringe on the commander in chief, whoever he or she may be, to protect this country. There is a reason Congress' role is limited to funding and declaring war."
Mr. Kucinich acknowledged a stalemate in Congress but said public opinion, which is trending against the war, will begin to constrain Mr. Obama's troop deployment.
He also warned the White House not to interpret disparate votes in Congress as an endorsement.
"The fact that the House may be going one way and the Senate another still does not constitute a de facto approval of the war; as a matter of fact, it's the opposite," he said. "They both have to concur and they don't, so what you're left with at the end is a war that's not authorized, and a war that's contrary to the Constitution of the United States."
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