The polarized US Senate hastily dropped plans to vote Tuesday on a symbolic resolution authorizing the US role in Libya amid a Republican insurrection to demand action instead on the national debt.
“We’ve agreed, notwithstanding the broad support for the Libyan resolution, the most important thing for us to focus on this week is the budget,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced as he scrapped debate on the bill.
The largely symbolic Libya resolution, the fate of which was unclear, would allow limited US strikes on Libyan targets for one year or for as long as the NATO-led campaign against strongman Moamer Kadhafi’s forces lasts.
It also forbids the deployment of US ground troops either now or if Kadhafi loses power, and roundly rejects Obama’s legal argument for not seeking congressional approval for US military strikes.
The measure had faced a procedural test vote on Tuesday.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, the resolution’s lead Democratic author, said he hoped the measure would get a debate and vote as early as “next week,” saying the delay was “not a big deal.”
Veteran Senator John McCain, the resolution’s top Republican author, said in a statement that his colleagues “understandably” aimed to focus on the debt but expressed hopes the Libya debate could happen “as early as next week.”
Reid’s surprise move came after several angry speeches from Republicans who noted that the top Democrat had cancelled an annual week-long recess to make progress in stalled debt talks.
“The most important national security issue facing the United States of America is the national debt,” said Republican Senator Roger Wicker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“We should not move to a vote on Libya — and to a discussion on Libya, which frankly is almost academic at this point — until we debate the crucial issue facing the United States Senate, and that’s the issue of the national debt.”
President Barack Obama and his Republican foes seemed still wide apart on a compromise to rein in the galloping US national debt over the long term while approving an increase in the US debt ceiling.
The US Treasury has publicly warned that failing to ease congressional set limits on borrowing by August 2 could trigger a possible US default and send catastrophic shockwaves through the fragile US economy.
Republican leaders have rejected any tax increases as part of a final deal to raise the country’s $14.29 trillion debt ceiling in the face of a US budget deficit expected to hit $1.6 trillion this year.
Democrats, including Obama, have called for raising taxes on the richest Americans, saying it is unfair to cut social programs and investments in education and science without “shared sacrifice.”
The Libya measure would carry little weight even if it passed because the House of Representatives has already rejected a similar resolution.
“Basically, we’re burning a week’s time on something that is totally irrelevant to what is happening in Libya and certainly irrelevant” to the debt battle, said Republican Senator Bob Corker.
Other lawmakers charged that giving Obama what amounted to retroactive permission to launch attacks on another country would set a bad precedent.
“I fear that we are setting the stage for presidents to undertake other humanitarian interventions without congressional approval,” said Senator Richard Lugar, the top Republican the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Presidents should not be able to avoid constitutional responsibilities merely because engaging the people’s representatives is inconvenient or uncertain,” said Lugar, Obama’s erstwhile foreign policy mentor.