The House of Representatives refused to either endorse or curtail U.S. involvement in Libya, delivering a mixed message Friday that highlighted deep divisions surrounding the issue.
By an overwhelming margin, lawmakers refused to sanction U.S. participation in a NATO campaign of airstrikes in the North African country, a vote that amounted to a rare, bipartisan rebuke of a president's foreign policy during an active military conflict.
Minutes later, however, a Republican-led effort to try to curb financial support for U.S. involvement also failed. A majority of Democrats and a group of Republicans rejected the bill to cut funding for combat activities — surprising GOP leaders, who tailored the bill at the last minute to suit the rank and file.
Both measures were largely symbolic. The first measure, which would have authorized U.S. involvement, was not expected to pass the Republican-led House, where fiscal conservatives and "tea party" freshmen have expressed increased skepticism about stretching the military thin.
The second bill, to cut off funding, had virtually no chance of passing the Senate, much less garnering a presidential signature.
GOP leaders framed the vote as an attempt to rein in the president, who decided not to seek authorization under the 1973 War Powers Act for U.S. participation in a NATO military effort.
"If the president believes that missile strikes and drone operations taking place in Libya are critical, it is his responsibility to explain [that] to the American people and to seek authorization from this Congress," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said before the vote.
The White House and its allies maintain that the War Powers Act does not apply, because the U.S. is acting as a part of NATO and its engagement does not meet the law's definition of "hostilities."
Republicans scheduled the two votes to signal congressional discontent as support dwindles — both in the U.S. and in some NATO countries taking part — for the action in Libya.
The leaders of the military effort, Britain and France, insist that they are prepared to keep fighting as long as it takes. However, this week, Italy called for at least a temporary halt in hostilities in order to allow humanitarian aid to get through. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini also said that the alliance should release more information on the results of its aerial campaign, especially concerning any mistakes causing civilian deaths.
In Washington, lawmakers voted 295 to 123 against the bill authorizing the U.S. effort, with 70 Democrats joining those who voted against congressional approval.
The funding cutoff was rejected 238 to 180. It would have halted financial backing for the mission until authorized by Congress. It made exceptions for a short list of nonhostile activities.
The exceptions appeared to contribute to the bill's demise.
"I could not support it because it does not go far enough. Funds must be fully cut off to the president's involvement in Libya," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
Confusion in Congress over how to exert its powers on questions of war is nothing new, said Taylor Reveley, director at the University of Virginia's Miller Center and an expert on war powers.
Reveley noted that in 1999, a Republican-led House issued a similarly mixed message when asked to authorize the use of U.S. forces in Kosovo. The House refused to authorize the mission, but then declined to take the further step of restricting ground troops.
"Congress often finds itself in the heat of the moment both trying to figure out what would be right to do militarily, while also grappling with who gets to decide what, when," he said. "The result is can be muddled."
Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.