By Mike Lillis - 06/19/14 07:14 PM EDT
Liberal Democrats are questioning President Obama's authority to launch missile strikes in Iraq without congressional approval.
On Wednesday the president informed congressional leaders that he won't seek new authority if he decides to use military force to quell Iraq's growing insurgency – a decision backed by top Democratic leaders.
"Congress needs to be on record," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday. "That's the way it's set up. And a 12-year-old decision on unilateral preemptive strikes that have been heavily criticized and tarnished, I don't think should be the basis for any new involvement."
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) agreed, saying Congress has "neglected" its role when it comes to checking military operations pushed by the executive branch.
"Congress needs to be more assertive when it comes to crossing that line to military engagement," Welch said Thursday.
"I don't know what the lawyers would say, but I know as a congressman what I would say," he added. "If we're going to start military strikes … Congress should have a say."
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) echoed that message.
"Maybe it's technically legal," he said, "but I don't consider that legitimate, considering what we've all been through."
Obama on Thursday held a press briefing to address his approach to the escalating Iraq crisis. The president repeatedly ruled out the option of returning U.S. troops to the field, but argued the importance of helping local forces stabilize the country for the sake of protecting American interests. Toward that end, he left open the option of launching targeted strikes on the Sunni jihadists pushing toward Baghdad.
"We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it," said Obama. "If we do, I will consult closely with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region."
At a White House meeting the day before, Obama had informed the top four congressional leaders – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) – that he won't be seeking congressional approval if he decides to go that route.
Breaking with many liberals in their caucus, the top House Democrats – Pelosi and Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Jim Clyburn (S.C.) – have all endorsed that argument.
"A president does not need any additional congressional authority to act upon measures to protect our national security," Pelosi said Thursday during a press briefing in the Capitol.
Pelosi said neither McConnell nor Boehner objected.
"I didn't hear any of them demanding congressional action," she said. "That was certainly not the case."
Last year, Obama had sought Congress's approval to use force in Syria to address the use of chemical weapons by dictator Bashar Assad. Faced with overwhelming public disapproval, Congress appeared ready to deny that request. Only a diplomatic breakthrough involving Russia led Assad to agree to destroy his chemical cache.
With polls showing a similar public distaste for any new operations in Iraq, there's a growing sentiment on Capitol Hill that Obama couldn't win the new authority if he tried.
"I don't think that he would get it," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Thursday.
Cummings said he thinks Obama has the authority, under existing law, to launch strikes in Iraq. But "from a political standpoint" the president will still have to justify that decision in the context of its importance to U.S. interests.
"He still needs to make his case," Cummings said.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, is offering three amendments to a House defense spending bill aimed at preventing Obama from launching any further military action in Iraq.
One amendment would bar funding for the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq.
The proposal, scheduled for a vote late Thursday night, is expected to fail. Still, Pelosi applauded Lee Thursday for forcing a "worthy" debate.
"I salute her action in bringing it to the floor," Pelosi said. "I don't know if it will win … but it's certainly a worthy discussion."