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Libya debate creates unusual political alliances in Fla., and on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill is engulfed in debate over war, the strain on U.S. troops abroad and the financial toll in a time of economic strife. And it's not about Afghanistan.

On Friday, attention will quickly refocus on Libya, with the House expected to vote on measures that cut to the overarching question of U.S. involvement and the anger resulting from President Barack Obama's refusal to seek congressional approval for the military mission.

The competing votes — one to endorse the effort, the other to cut off funding — highlight unusual political alliances that have formed for and against the NATO-led bombing campaign, now in its third month.

The divide nationally is reflected in Florida's House delegation, one of the nation's biggest and a mix of veterans and political newcomers.

On one side, Democrats who support the effort (or at least are unwilling to buck the president) are positioned with Republican hawks. On the other, fiscally conservative Republicans who were elected last November and who hold rigid constitutional views find themselves aligned with anti-war Democrats.

"We can't keep committing U.S. military to 'protect innocent civilians'; they're exhausted," vented Rep. Allen West, a freshman Republican and tea party star from South Florida.

"America can't do it all," said Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa.

The Libya effort has cost more than $800 million as of early June. The U.S. military is helping with air strikes as well as humanitarian efforts.

As Friday's vote neared, an intense push back was under way, showing the level of concern among Libya backers and exposing another layer of odd political bedfellows.

Just hours after bluntly posing the question, "Whose side are you on?" — Moammar Gadhafi or the Libyan people — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met privately with rank-and-file Democrats Thursday to explain the mission and the stakes if the House votes to prohibit funds.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising Republican figure, took to the op/ed page of the Wall Street Journal to argue that a House vote cutting off funds would throw a lifeline to a "vicious dictator — one who has American blood on his hands."

"The cruel irony is that these congressional efforts take place just as the tide in Libya appears to be turning against Gadhafi," Rubio wrote with Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

But feelings remains raw in the House, where Democrats and Republicans alike are incensed that Obama has ignored the 1973 War Powers Resolution requiring congressional authorization for a foreign military operation within 60 days or withdraw.

The Obama administration argues that the actions are not subject to the law because they are limited and do not equate to "hostilities," a claim many experts dispute.

"My overriding concern is that a president, any president, be checked by the legislative branch before he commits America to war," said Castor, who voted for a June 3 resolution that demanded an end to the U.S. involvement.

She was joined by fellow Democrat Alcee Hastings of Miramar and 11 of Florida's 19 Republicans, who found themselves in the unusual spot of backing a bill by one of the most liberal members of Congress, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

It fell short of passing but gained support of 87 Republicans and 61 Democrats. The House did approve a less strident resolution rebuking the president for his actions, a nonbinding slap on the wrist.

Among those supporting the second measure were Tampa Bay-area Republican Reps. C.W. Bill Young and Gus Bilirakis. Rep. Rich Nugent, a freshman Republican from Brooksville, voted for both measures.

Young, who serves as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on defense, said Thursday evening that he had gotten assurances from NATO officials that the U.S. was only providing support for combat missions, but that he was waiting for full arguments on the bills to decide how he will vote.

"I'm am very prepared to support our established role with NATO," Young said, adding does not support putting American troops on the ground.

Other Republicans say that while concerns over Obama's actions are justified, a precipitous withdrawal would send the wrong sign to Gadhafi.

"It would ensure his hold on power," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said after the vote earlier this month. "It would be seen, not only in Libya but throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as open season to threaten U.S. interests and destabilize our allies."

In the weeks since the June 3 vote, however, dissent has continued to build as Obama has ignored congressional demands for approval.

The House is expected to vote Friday on two measures: One would effectively back Obama's position and matches a resolution in the Senate.

The second — sponsored by Florida Rep. Tom Rooney — would block funding for Libya for any "hostile" actions, a direct response to Obama's legal argument. Non-hostile activities, like refueling NATO planes, would continue to be funded.

"The president has ignored the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, but he cannot ignore a lack of funding," said Rooney, R-Tequesta, who taught constitutional law at West Point.

Rooney said he was willing to hear the president make his case but constituents in his heavily Republican district do not see the justification. "Everybody is saying 'What is the national interest, what is the imminent threat?' "

Rooney feels a distinct shift among Republicans away from regular oversees engagement. That change has come from the extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is accelerated by pressing economic troubles at home.

More and more, lawmakers in both parties are questioning defense spending and saying the money could be put to better use or to help curtail the spiraling national debt.

The 2010 midterm elections swept in dozens of new Republicans who said the debt was a national security issue. Many of those lawmakers have sided against continuing operations in Libya, citing financial and philosophical concerns.

To counter the House, Senate leaders this week introduced a counter resolution that permits Obama to continue the military action for a year but bars the use of troops on the ground.

Rubio and fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, support the resolution.

Rubio's ardent backing of the intervention attracts notice because he rose to prominence by blasting federal spending and also because segments of his party are breaking from so-called nation-building efforts.

"Money should always concern us," Rubio said in an interview. "I would argue two things: It would have been cheaper and quicker had we gotten involved earlier and more forcefully, and it's going to cost us a lot more money overall not to be involved at all."

Added Rubio, "The reality of it is Moammar Gadhafi needs to go, and the day he goes will be a good day for America and a good day for the world."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Libya debate creates unusual political alliances in Fla., and on Capitol Hill 06/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 7:30pm]
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