House Republican leaders unveiled legislation Thursday that would allow the U.S. military to remain engaged in a NATO-led operation against Libya but bar the use of any ground troops except to rescue an American service member from imminent danger.
In blunt terms, the legislation said that President Barack Obama had failed to give Congress a "compelling rationale" for the U.S. operation in Libya and demanded he do so in writing within 14 days.
Republicans said the legislation was designed to achieve two objectives _ derailing a proposal to end U.S. involvement in the Libyan operation and signaling unhappiness with the administration's treatment of Congress.
In a sharp response to the criticism, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Thursday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates "believes that for the United States, once committed to a NATO operation, to unilaterally abandon that mission would have enormous and dangerous long-term consequences."
Obama ordered air strikes in March to back Libyan rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi's regime after limited consultation with Congress. More recently, the United States has operated in a support role as the standoff continues between Gadhafi's forces and the rebels.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution requires the president to obtain congressional authorization within 60 days of the start of military operations, a deadline that passed last month. Previous presidents, Republicans and Democrats, have largely ignored the law.
Responding to the frustration among rank-and-file lawmakers, the GOP leadership put together an alternative to anti-war Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich's proposal to end U.S. involvement in the conflict. A vote on the issue was postponed on Wednesday, and officials in both parties said it was because the legislation from Kucinich, D-Ohio, was gaining ground.
The alternative insists that Obama report to Congress within 14 days on the objective of the mission, the U.S. national security interests and his justification for not seeking congressional authorization.
The resolution said the president "shall not deploy, establish or maintain the presence of units and members of the U.S. armed forces on the ground in Libya."
Obama has ruled out U.S. ground forces.
The alternative also presses Obama on the cost of the operation, its impact on the U.S. effort in Iraq and Afghanistan and the background and political connections of the Libyan rebels.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters earlier in the day that Obama needs to explain the U.S. role in Libya with two ongoing, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The doubts that our members have, frankly, are reflected _ they're reflecting what they're hearing from their constituents," Boehner said. "And I think the president has a role to play here, and the president really does need to step up and help the American people understand why these missions are vital to the national security interests of our country."
The leadership discussed the alternative with rank-and-file Republicans at an hour-long, closed-door meeting. The House will vote Friday on the Kucinich measure and the leadership's alternative.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Boehner made a compelling case for the GOP to back his measure and not the more drastic Kucinich resolution.
"He (Boehner) believes we shouldn't try to make political points on foreign policy," McKeon said after the meeting.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the two measures "do not advance our efforts in the region and send the wrong message to our NATO partners."
Weighing in while traveling with Gates in Asia, Morrell said: "Once military forces are committed, such actions by the Congress can have significant consequences. It sends an unhelpful message of disunity and uncertainty to our troops, our allies and, most importantly, the Gadhafi regime." He pointed out that NATO has sought U.S. help as the United States has asked for NATO assistance in Afghanistan.
But discontent among congressional Republicans and Democrats was palpable.
"With all due respect to the secretary, we have a law," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., who had introduced a resolution stating that Obama is in violation of the law and requiring the withdrawal of U.S. forces by June 19. "We cannot `not' act."
Rooney added, "We're trying to say we're relevant here."
Republicans seized on recent comments by Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples, suggesting the need for U.S. ground forces in a post-Gadhafi Libya.
"Since the president engaged the United States in military action in Libya, he has not explained to Congress what the U.S.' role is, nor has he clearly outlined how that role will be carried out," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio.
In an interview, Turner said Congress has "no information on post-Gadhafi planning" from the administration.
In a letter to his colleagues, Kucinich railed against "an open-ended war" and "an open-ended checkbook" and accused Obama of bypassing Congress and the Constitution.
NATO and its partners said Wednesday they have decided to extend for another 90 days their military campaign to protect Libyan civilians.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that there are signs that Gadhafi is "becoming more and more isolated," but he would not predict how long the military intervention there will last. He pointed out that some military and government leaders have abandoned Gadhafi and there is an increasing amount of pressure on the Libyan leader.
Mullen said that despite speculation that the allies would be "out of ammo" by June, he saw no problems with the international commitment to the operation at least until September.
The White House continued to defend the U.S. action in Libya and its consultation with Congress.
"From our vantage point, there is pretty unified support in Congress for a policy that calls for the Gadhafi regime to remove itself from power and we have seen in the actions this administration has taken enormous amount of progress toward that end ... to tighten the noose around Gadhafi, make it clear his days are numbered, he will no longer rule Libya," Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.
Obama backs a Senate resolution written by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., supporting the U.S. military role in the NATO-led operation. The Senate could vote on that resolution next week.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Robert Burns, Erica Werner, David Espo and Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.