WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders abandoned plans for a test vote Tuesday on authorizing the U.S. military operation against Libya as Republicans insisted they should instead focus on government spending and the nation's borrowing limit.
Just hours before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced the change in plans, leaving the fate of the resolution in doubt. One after another, GOP senators had stood on the Senate floor and signaled they would oppose any effort to move ahead on the Libya measure, arguing that dealing with the debt was far more important than working on a resolution with no practical impact.
The Senate had already canceled this week's recess to deal with the financial issue.
"No real work is scheduled in the Senate this week on the budget, nor is any on the debt ceiling," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "Instead, we are moving today to a Libya resolution. This resolution, not requested by the president, is not why we asked to cancel recess."
At least five Republican senators indicated they would oppose the vote.
"If the resolution we're debating is debated and passed, it would not affect one iota what we're doing in Libya," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Congress was already sending a muddled message on Libya to both U.S. allies and Moammar Gadhafi.
Bipartisan Senate support for giving President Barack Obama limited authority to continue military involvement against Gadhafi was at odds with overwhelming opposition in the House to the commander in chief's actions. Democrats as well as Republicans in the House have criticized Obama for failing to seek congressional consent for the operation in a constitutional stalemate that has dragged on for weeks.
The Senate had scheduled a vote on whether to proceed with a resolution authorizing "the limited use of United States Armed Forces in support of the NATO mission in Libya." The resolution would expire when the NATO operation ends or after one year, and it would prohibit the use of American ground forces or private security contractors in Libya. The Foreign Relations Committee easily adopted the measure on a 14-5 vote last week.
Leading backers of the resolution include Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. They have been the strongest voices in the Senate for the military action against Gadhafi's forces. Also sponsoring the resolution are Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
McCain said he understood the reason for the Senate delay, but he hoped lawmakers would return to the resolution next week. Kerry said he hoped the Senate would resume work on it quickly.
"The Senate does need to have a debate about United States policy and military action in Libya," said McCain, who along with Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., had cut short an overseas trip that included Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to be present for the vote.
"I'm glad I canceled my meeting with the Pakistani government," Graham said sarcastically in talking to reporters about his return.
Since NATO took command of the Libya operation in early April, the U.S. role has largely been limited to support efforts such as intelligence, surveillance and electronic warfare. The U.S. has launched airstrikes and drone attacks, flying more than 3,400 sorties.
"In Libya today, no American troop is being shot at," Kerry said last week.
But that hasn't silenced the congressional debate pitting the executive branch against the legislative.
Obama last week defended his decision to order U.S. military action more than three months ago and insisted he had not violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which demands congressional authorization within 60 days of first military strikes. The president contends American forces supporting the NATO-led operation are not engaged in full-blown hostilities, making congressional consent unnecessary.
Even members of the Foreign Relations Committee, which backed the resolution, rejected Obama's legal argument that the operation does not constitute full-blown hostilities. The panel adopted an amendment that specified the operation included "hostilities" that fall under the War Powers Resolution and require congressional authorization.
The sponsor of that amendment, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, is one of the strongest Senate critics of the Libya operation. He said Obama had ignored Congress, dealing a setback to the Constitution in a "fundamental failure of leadership that placed expedience above constitutional responsibility."
Lugar, the top GOP lawmaker on the Foreign Relations panel, also questioned the expensive, open-ended commitment of U.S. forces. Last month, the White House put the cost of U.S. military operations in Libya at about $715 million, with the total increasing to $1.1 billion by early September.
"Let us be clear that we are deliberately trying to overthrow the government of Libya with military force," Lugar said on the Senate floor.
In Libya on Tuesday, at least 11 people were killed in fighting that began late Monday and continued Tuesday as Gadhafi forces stepped up pressure to try to block rebel fighters from advancing toward the capital of Tripoli, rebels said.
Libyan government troops have been unable to retake two main rebel strongholds in the west — Misrata and several towns in the Nafusa mountain range. The rebels have been trying to break out of those bridgeheads.
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