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.”
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.
“I didn’t want us in Libya, but I don’t want us to cut things off immediately when our NATO allies are relying on us,” Mr. Waxman said.
Libya has been a pressing political issue since Mr. Obama committed troops in March. It also has been the flash point for a brewing constitutional crisis between Mr. Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who said the president had not provided enough good information nor sought the approval of Congress, in violation of the War Powers Resolution. Mr. Boehner carved out floor time for the various debates.
The president argues that the U.S. is no longer engaged in hostilities because of the limited nature of the war. More recently, his administration has argued that rather than fight over legal issues, Congress instead should focus on the U.S. effort to protect civilians from forces loyal to Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
“The debate over the law can go on forever, but there is an important and urgent question, and that is what happens to the civilians of Libya,” State Department legal adviser Harold Koh told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.
Some lawmakers have said they oppose the way the effort has been handled but hope rebel forces are able to oust Col. Gadhafi quickly, making the U.S. debate obsolete.
For now, though, the conflict continues and all eyes turn to Mr. Boehner, who has not said anything publicly since the House rejected all of the options on the table, and to the Senate, where a debate could start as early as this week.
Even if the Senate acts in the next several weeks to authorize the war, there seems to be little chance that the House would do the same. A resolution similar to the Senate’s authorization failed in the House in late June by a 295-123 vote.
During that same debate, the House also rejected a bill by Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, Florida Republican, that would have authorized a supporting role but ruled out airstrikes. The measure was defeated with a 238-180 vote.
After those measures failed, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who has been leading the opposition, was hopeful that the House would cut off all spending for the war during its debate last week on the 2012 spending bill. However, that was defeated by a 229-199 vote.
Lawmakers are divided over the longer-term implications of failing to curtail Mr. Obama’s actions, though Mr. Diaz-Balart and others cautioned that the Libya case should be considered on its own merits.
He said the president has the authority under the War Powers Resolution to commit troops, so lawmakers have limited options other than to undercut allies and send a bad message to the rest of the world.
Mr. Diaz-Balart said the closest option to his own preference would have been the Rooney bill authorizing a supporting role, but that it went too far in ending attacks by manned aircraft and drone strikes.
Mr. Kucinich said before the vote that if Congress doesn’t speak with unity, voters will force the president’s hand.
“Right now, there’s a stalemate in Libya, and there’s a stalemate in Washington. And public opinion will break it — will break the stalemate. And the longer this goes on, the more of a political burden this is going to become for the president,” he said.