Washington: The war-weary US House of Representatives on Friday delivered a harsh, symbolic rebuke to President Barack Obama over the conflict in Libya but beat back efforts to cut funds for direct US air strikes.
The mixed result showed that lawmakers generally united in criticising Obama`s decision to do without congressional permission still lacked a coherent approach to force the President to change course.
By a crushing 295-123 margin that included 70 of Obama`s Democratic allies, the House first rejected a resolution authorising the use of military force as part of a NATO-led campaign against Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi`s regime.
"We don`t have enough wars going on? The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, we need one more war?" thundered Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, who has played a leading role in opposing the US role in Libya.
"This war is a distraction. Our flailing economy demands the full attention of Congress and the president," he said, as the House defied a last-ditch appeal from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a warning from NATO`s chief.
It was the first time that the House rejected authorising US military action since April 1999, when it repudiated then-president Bill Clinton`s air campaign against Serbia in the conflict over Kosovo.
Lawmakers later voted 238-180 to beat back a Republican-led plan to cut funds for direct strikes on Libya but allow operations in support of NATO, a surprise outcome wrought by warnings that this amounted to a green light in all but name.
"Let`s not enter a war through the back door when we have already decided not to enter it through the front," said Representative Tom McClintock, one of 89 Republicans to vote against the measure.
"You can`t have it both ways," scolded Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who voted in favour of Obama`s approach both times.
"You can`t say `we would like to remove Gaddafi, we`d like to support the Libyan people, but we`re going to offer up resolutions that are going to stop that from happening," he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made a rare in-person plea for support from Democrats in a closed-door session on Thursday, said the second vote showed bipartisan support for pursuing Obama`s strategy.
"We have a plan that we are executing for achieving our mission in Libya. It is on track and we need to see it through. Time and history are on our side but only if we sustain the pressure," she told reporters.
But a Republican leadership aide warned the administration "should not be heartened by this, they should be worried" because the funding measure went down to defeat over concerns it effectively authorised Obama`s approach.
And lawmakers presented a near-unified front of criticism against Obama`s failure to get permission from Congress within a 60-day window set by the 1973 War Powers Act -- a law routinely ignored by US presidents -- and noted the US Constitution reserves the right to declare war to the legislature.
"It didn`t have to come to this," said Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who charged Obama "failed to fulfil his obligations" to get the go-ahead from lawmakers and lay out the goal and likely duration and costs of the conflict.
"The President is becoming an absolute monarch, and we must put a stop to that right now if we don`t want to become an empire instead of a republic," said Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler.
But Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who called the Kosovo vote "one of the darkest days" of his time in office, warned lawmakers risked straining Washington`s ties overseas.
"The message will go to Muammar Gaddafi, the message will go to our NATO allies, the message will go to every nation of the world that America does not keep faith with its allies," he said.
The Republican compromise would have cut off direct combat like drone strikes and bombings but allowed operations in support of NATO, like aerial refuelling, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, planning, or search and rescue.
The United States joined Britain and France in attacking Gaddafi`s forces on March 19 in an UN-authorised mission to protect civilians as the regime attempted to crush an uprising sparked by the regional "Arab Spring”.
The United States withdrew into a supporting role when NATO took command of the mission on March 31.