By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's decision to join Western intervention in Libya is raising concerns in the United States about the cost and duration of the military operation.
Even if the U.S. role in Libya remains limited, as Obama has promised, the effort will add to record-high debt and deficits that have led to a budget standoff between Republicans and Obama's Democrats.
"It's a strange time in which almost all of our congressional days are spent talking about budget, deficits, outrageous problems and yet at the same time all of this passes," said Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Lugar, a senior lawmaker who has been in sync with Obama on many foreign affairs issues, told CBS's "Face the Nation" program that he understood the mission was to stop the "cruelties and the murder" of civilians in Libya.
But he said he worried that the Libya intervention could draw the United States more deeply into the unrest in the Middle East than the Obama administration intends.
The Libyan intervention marks a third military operation in a Muslim country, with the U.S. armed services' resources already stretched thin by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Until last week, Obama himself had been reluctant to support calls by France and Britain for a no-fly zone over Libya because of concerns about its effectiveness and wariness over where it might lead.
His decision resolved a debate within his administration about whether to intervene, with Defense Secretary Robert Gates among the chief skeptics and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coming around to backing intervention after she initially had been hesitant, too.
With troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is now fighting three conflicts while struggling under a huge budget deficit and national debt. The Pentagon also has plans to cut $78 billion in defense spending over five years.
A protracted conflict in Libya adds to the Defense Department's budget worries.
"Just the missiles cost $1 million each. So that's, what, $112 million in the first hour?" said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
"We have just spent months debating how many billions we're going to cut from various domestic programs. That is the focus in Washington. It does seem incongruous to a certain degree," he said.
The United States has still not fully recovered from recession and unemployment is near 9 percent, putting Obama's chances of re-election in 2012 at risk.
"We need help here with crime, violence, education. Jobs are scarce, we've got so many homeless people here. Can you help us before we help others?" said Maria Garcia, 52, a real estate agent in Los Angeles.
The upheaval in the Middle East has added to the risks to the U.S. economy by causing global oil prices to surge.
Concerns over a budget deficit that is projected to hit $1.65 trillion this year have dominated the U.S. political debate in recent months, with Republicans and Democrats sparring over deep cuts in domestic programs the conservative party is seeking.
The budget fight has raised the possibility of a government shutdown and has forced the Congress to pass a series of temporary spending bills to fund operations for this year.
Congress would need to approve any funds for U.S. action in Libya.
Senior Republicans urged Obama on Sunday to do more to communicate to the American public what his aims are in Libya.
"The president is the commander-in-chief, but the administration has a responsibility to define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America's role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished," House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said.
Some lawmakers said they were reassured by the narrow scope of the U.S. intervention.
"The goal of this mission is not to get rid of Gaddafi and that is not what the U.N. licensed and I would not call it going to war," said John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman.
"This is a very limited operation that is geared to save lives and it was specifically targeted on a humanitarian basis," Kerry, a close Obama ally, told NBC's "Meet the Press."
Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there was "strong bipartisan support in Congress for going into Libya" because it was limited.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton, David Morgan and Nichola Groom; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)