By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday that Congress could cut funding for U.S. military involvement in Libya, ratcheting up tension between lawmakers and the White House over the NATO-led air war.
As criticism builds of the U.S. intervention and the Obama administration's refusal to ask Congress for consent, Boehner said the White House must clarify the legal basis for Libya operations by Friday or lawmakers could take action next week.
"The House has options, we're looking at those options. ... Congress has the power of the purse, and certainly that is an option as well," said Boehner, the top Republican in the Congress.
Boehner spoke a day after the White House sent lawmakers a 32-page letter defending President Barack Obama's policy, while saying the Libyan conflict was too limited to require Congress' authorization under the 1973 War Powers Resolution.
Another key Republican, Senator John McCain, while criticizing Obama's handling of the issue, said war critics should stop and think before riding to the rescue of "the mad dog of the Middle East," Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
McCain said he and Democratic Senator John Kerry would introduce a measure authorizing the limited use of force in Libya, to try to head off what McCain called a "wholesale revolt" in Congress against Obama administration policy.
McCain said the revolt resulted from "delay, confusion and obfuscation" by the president about the Libya mission, as well as a refusal to seek congressional authorization for the war.
Criticism of the Libyan conflict has been fueled by general unease in both parties over a third war after Afghanistan and Iraq, and worries about more costs in a time of massive debt.
There is also an element of partisan criticism of a Democratic president from Republican lawmakers, including some like Representatives Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul who are seeking their party's nomination for president.
NATO is leading the effort to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi's forces -- a mission whose unstated goal seems to be to drive the Libyan leader from power -- with the U.S. providing logistical support and intelligence.
$10 MILLION A DAY
Boehner said the White House letter didn't make clear whether Obama's legal advisers agreed with the president's view that the U.S. role was too limited to require congressional consent. He wanted an answer to that question by Friday.
"It doesn't pass the straight face test in my view that we are not in the midst of hostilities," Boehner said. The U.S. had launched drone strikes and was part of efforts to bomb Muammar Gaddafi's compound, he said. "We're spending $10 million dollars a day."
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said he didn't anticipate "further elucidation" of the administration's legal reasoning on Libya. In any case, he said, the White House had consulted with Congress at least 41 times on the conflict.
The U.S. Constitution says that Congress declares war, while the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution tried to resolve the tensions in these roles by prohibiting U.S. armed forces from being involved in military actions for over 60 days, with a 30-day pullout period. Boehner says the 90 days are up Sunday.
McCain urged Republicans not to oppose the war "simply because a leader of the opposite party occupies the White House."
"I believe the president did the right thing by intervening to stop a looming humanitarian disaster in Libya," he said.
Republicans are not the only ones who say Obama has not shown enough concern for the opinion of Congress. "He (Obama) made a great mistake in not asking permission, for support," said Democratic Representative Barney Frank -- although adding that he would vote against it if Obama did ask.
Senator Kerry, who is close to the administration, told reporters he did not believe the United States was at war in Libya, so congressional authorization was not strictly needed. But he said it would be better if Congress were supportive and that was why he backed McCain's measure.
The White House letter said the U.S. role had cost $716 million as of June 3 and would reach $1.1 billion by September 30.
One action that the White House wants lawmakers to take on Libya has stalled in the Senate. The banking committee postponed a vote on Thursday on a bill to allow the president to use up to $10 billion in frozen Libyan state assets for humanitarian aid to Libyans caught up in the war.
Senator Richard Shelby, the banking panel's ranking Republican, said the vote was postponed after some senators asked whether the president already had the power to free up the assets, making the legislation unnecessary.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Anthony Boadle)