The House defeated two competing measures Friday that would have given President Obama differing levels of authority to continue the war in Libya, signaling a majority want to limit the president but that there is no consensus yet on how to do it.
Taken together, nearly 300 lawmakers voted against fully backing Mr. Obama — a devastating rejection of the president at a time when he has deployed troops overseas.
Yet those lawmakers were split between authorizing a limited support mission and wanting no involvement whatsoever, that division meant the House was unable to agree — essentially leaving Mr. Obama with a free hand to continue to fight the war as he wants.
"Congress today voted overwhelmingly against authorizing the war," said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who has led anti-war forces in the House.
The House rejected two proposals: one that would have endorsed Mr. Obama's current mission, including attacks by U.S. warplanes and drones, and another that would have limited American forces strictly to a purely support role for NATO, involving surveillance and search-and-rescue.
Only 123 members — all but eight of them Democrats — voted to back Mr. Obama completely.
Meanwhile, 180 lawmakers, including 144 Republicans and 36 Democrats, voted for the second measure, that would have limited his authority. And another 116 members — 80 Republicans and 36 Democrats — voted against both proposals, arguing that even limited surveillance and search missions still amounted to the U.S. being involved in a war.
But with anti-war lawmakers divided, Mr. Obama keeps a free hand.
Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who led the effort to vote against both measures Friday, said the U.S. cannot afford to be involved in any effort in Libya.
"How many more wars can we withstand? What number is this? Number five?" he said.
And leaders of the Progressive Caucus, the liberal wing of House Democrats, said the priority now is to restore the constitutional balance of power over declaring war.
"Before the executive branch further weakens the War Powers Resolution, and before we attack another country in the name of our 'responsibility to protect,' we must recommit ourselves to our constitutional duty and obligation to hold the purse strings and the right to declare war," they said in the run-up to the vote.
Mr. Kucinich, though, had urged anti-war lawmakers to pursue a two-part strategy: Voting for the limited support mission this week, and when the House takes up its annual defense spending bill next month, vote for a stricter amendment cutting off all funding altogether.
That last option wasn't on the table in Friday's debate.
The White House had tried to rally support this week for its position, and press secretary Jay Carney said the administration was "disappointed" with the vote rejecting authorization.
"Now is not the time to send the kind of mixed message that it sends when we are working with our allies to achieve the goals that we believe that are widely shared in Congress," he said.
Democrats who supported Mr. Obama accused Republicans of trying to damage the president for political reasons, and said the vote is squandering a chance to change perceptions of the U.S.
"We have the opportunity to show the Arab world and every nation of Earth who we are as a people," said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat. "It shouldn't matter who is in the White House."
A bipartisan group of senators is also moving to bolster the president.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry and Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee — and coincidentally, the last two losing presidential candidates — have joined forces to write a resolution backing Mr. Obama's limited war.
Their resolution largely mirrors the first measure the House defeated Friday, though, suggesting that even if the House or Senate passes something, it will face a tough time getting through Congress as a whole.
With a legislative stalemate possible, Mr. Kucinich is pursuing a court strategy as well. Earlier this month he led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in suing to halt the deployment, arguing Mr. Obama is violating the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
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