The Obama administration tried to find solace in Friday’s landmark votes on the Libya operation, holding up the fact that the House did not actually de-fund the mission as some semblance of an endorsement.
But the two votes Friday on Libya, coupled with the fierce backlash the president faced from his own party after announcing his Afghanistan withdrawal plan Wednesday, underscore the political trouble President Obama is in when it comes to national security. Though anti-war Democrats and anti-interventionist Republicans have long locked arms against U.S. military campaigns abroad, that bipartisan coalition is swelling — in size and intensity.
A majority of Republicans went on record Friday against funding and authorizing the Libya war, in a reversal of partisan roles. Perhaps more troubling for the president, 36 Democrats voted against funding and 70 Democrats voted against authorizing — the authorization bill failed, in a blow to the president, but so did the de-funding bill.
Many of the Democrats on that roster are vocal anti-war lawmakers. But some have also been prominent allies of the president on other issues. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who voted against authorization, shepherded the massive financial regulatory package through the House last year. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who also voted against authorization, played a major role in the health care overhaul debate.
In the other chamber, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. — a key Obama ally and top Democrat who served alongside the president when he represented Illinois — is pushing a measure that would put a timetable on Libya. Though Durbin says he supports the mission, his proposal would only authorize use of force through the end of 2011.
And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, while not crossing the president on Libya, chided the administration on Wednesday over the president’s call to withdraw surge troops from Afghanistan by the end of next summer.
“It has been the hope of many in Congress and across the country that the full drawdown of U.S. forces would happen sooner than the president laid out — and we will continue to press for a better outcome,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Other Democrats used less subtle language to criticize the administration.
Rep. Jerrold Nader, D-N.Y., called the president’s Afghanistan plan, under which U.S. forces would be committed until 2014, “simply unconscionable.” He reportedly warned that the president was becoming an “absolute monarch” on war powers.
For now, the backlash does not have any immediate effect on Libya or Afghanistan. It would be extremely rare for Congress to de-fund a military mission, and the Pentagon budget could potentially have enough cushion in it to absorb such a financial shock anyway. The failed resolution on authorization also was non-binding and only took place in one chamber.
“I mean, this was one vote,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday when asked whether the military mission in Libya would continue regardless of support in Congress.
But the Senate is poised to take up the Libya authorization debate as early as next week, and Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., just announced plans to propose several amendments restricting the president’s authority.
Ironically, one of the administration’s biggest allies on Libya is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who ran against Obama in 2008 — though McCain has been critical of the way the administration handled the Libya mission with Congress. McCain and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., are pushing the measure to authorize the war.
On the campaign trail, economy-focused Republican candidates are beginning to use national security against the president — though they’ve tiptoed around the nation-rallying operation that resulted in the death of Usama bin Laden.
The message is far from harmonious. After the president’s Afghanistan speech, several candidates hammered the president for withdrawing the troops too quickly.
“Instead of providing the American people with clarity, President Obama proposes an abrupt withdrawal of our troops that could potentially compromise the legitimate gains we have made in Afghanistan,” candidate Herman Cain said.
But others said he wasn’t moving quickly enough.
“Now it is time we move to a focused counter-terror effort which requires significantly fewer boots on the ground than the president discussed,” said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, the newest candidate to the race.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the apparent GOP frontrunner, appeared to fall on both sides of the debate, calling on the president to bring troops home as soon as possible but urging him not to set an “arbitrary timetable.”