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House Speaker John Boehner leaves the House floor after a vote on funding U.S. military action in Libya on Friday. (AP)

Congress Uses Power Of Pursed Lips, Not Purse, With Libya Votes

Jun 24, 2011

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Frank James

Congress knows how to stop presidents from prosecuting wars or pursuing other military activities opposed by lawmakers. It stops the flow of money. It's done it before, with the Vietnam War, for example.

But it decided not to do so Friday. The House failed to pass a bill that would have ended funding for much of the U.S. effort in Libya. There were 238 votes against and 180 for legislation to defund the U.S. military effort. Of the Republicans, 144 voted for the bill as did 36 Democrats.

As NPR's Andrea Seabrook reported on All Things Considered Friday, the House sent something of a muddy message because, while it decided to keep funding the U.S. military's action in Libya, it voted against authorizing President Obama's Libya actions.

As Andrea said in her report:

So how do you read the House's action today? Well, it's angry at the president, and refused to give him authorization to continue in Libya. But its not mad enough to cut the funding. More than likely, the White House will continue operations as it has without much input from the Congress at all.

That sounds about right. Friday's votes were basically the House blowing off steam. It was Congress using the power of pursed lips instead of the power of the purse. It made a point instead of policy.

Republicans and Democrats shared some of the same reasons for voting to defund the Libya mission from defending the warmaking prerogatives of Congress, to anger at the president for not doing more to consult Congress and dissatisfaction with him for playing semantic games, as they saw it, to evade the War Powers Act. (It depends on what the meaning of "hostilities" is.) There are the budget concerns.

Of course, there were also some reasons that weren't shared. Some Republicans just aren't going to agree with virtually anything Obama does.

Meanwhile, the very argument that Obama has used to try and gain support for the Libya mission — that there are no U.S. troops on the ground — probably worked against him. Members of Congress, especially Republicans, are understandably reluctant to pull funding from troops in the field that are under fire.

That the U.S. military is mainly playing a support role to NATO forces, according to Obama, likely made it an easier vote for many Republicans.

For those seeking details on congressional efforts to rein in commanders in chief since Vietnam, the Congressional Research Service produced a 2007 report that covers the question.

The report concludes ever since passage of the War Powers Act in 1973, Congress has had more success using its power of the purse to hem in presidential use of the military than it has by invoking the act itself.

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