Pelosi on the spot as war debate begins

President Obama’s request for new war powers against Islamic militants poses a major challenge for his closest ally on Capitol Hill: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The House minority leader is under pressure to support Obama’s anti-terror agenda, particularly in the face of Republican criticism that his proposed authorization for use of military force (AUMF) is too narrow to be effective.

But she’s also being pushed by a growing number of liberals in her caucus who have just the opposite concern — that the resolution is too broad and could lead to another drawn-out conflict in the Middle East.

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“I would have a lot of trouble supporting the resolution as it’s currently drafted,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

Pelosi on Wednesday praised Obama for giving Congress a voice in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and emphasized the need to strike a balance between ensuring national security and checking executive overreach.

“We hope to have bipartisan support for something that would limit the power of the president but nonetheless protect the American people,” Pelosi said.

But GOP leaders wasted little time criticizing the AUMF for tying the hands of the Pentagon. And any administration effort to win GOP support by broadening the underlying war powers would only alienate more Democrats, thereby increasing the pressure on Pelosi to oppose a major piece of Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Similar dynamics were on display in December, when Obama backed several Republican amendments to a sweeping year-end spending bill. Liberals in the House revolted and Pelosi sided with them, bucking Obama with a fiery floor speech condemning the package before voting against it. 

Adding to her challenge in the current debate, Pelosi rose to power, in part, on her staunch opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, Pelosi voted against the resolution that authorized that invasion even as the top Democrats in each chamber — Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) — joined the Republicans in supporting it.

The dynamics are very different now. Pelosi leads the party, and there’s a Democrat in the White House requesting new war powers, even as Americans are wary of a return to war after more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those public concerns are reflected on Capitol Hill, where a number of Democrats are already lining up to oppose Obama’s request.

The liberal critics have three chief concerns. They’re worried that there are no geographic restrictions in the new proposal; critical that the request doesn’t repeal the 2001 AUMF that authorized the invasion of Afghanistan; and concerned that language to prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations” is too vague to prevent another American ground war.

“That’s not a limitation. What that is, is language that’s supposed to make people like me feel better,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who opposes the president’s request in its current form, said of that provision. “In real terms, it doesn’t mean anything.”

McGovern said he doesn’t know how many other Democrats would join him in opposing the AUMF, but Democratic leaders acknowledged Wednesday that there’s plenty of unease among rank-and-file members.

“There’s some healthy skepticism in our caucus,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said after a closed-door meeting of the party in the Capitol, where White House counsel Neil Eggleston sought to win support for the proposal.  

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a Thursday hearing on the new war powers request, though it remains unclear whether GOP leaders in either chamber will bring it to the floor.

A number of Democrats said the politics surrounding the debate could lend Pelosi a good deal of leverage, which they fully expect her to use.

“She brings a very strong personal conviction about Congress serving as an effective check on the executive’s war-making power. That will inform her decision-making. She also has her hand on the pulse of our caucus,” Schiff said. “There is no question that she will be a central player in this.”

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said Pelosi “appreciates the fact that he [Obama] is essentially challenging Congress to have this debate,” and she wants to allow all her members a voice.

“Sometimes the leadership role is to create the space for the caucus members to have a full and constructive debate,” Welch said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel, acknowledged the difficulties facing congressional leaders hoping to adopt the new war powers bill. But he was quick to note that they have a simple incentive: If they want a voice in the debate, they have to reach a compromise. 

“There should be room in the middle unless we want to cut ourselves out entirely, because the president takes the position that he can continue to operate under the 2001, 2002 AUMF,” Engel said. “So that’s really the alternative. The question is: Are we cutting off our nose to spite our face?”