President Obama is not close to seeking congressional authorization for airstrikes in Iraq.
After a White House meeting between Obama and the top four leaders in Congress, all sides involved signaled they want to leave options open for handling a politically delicate and fluid crisis that threatens to leave jihadist terrorists in control of Iraq.
Militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) reportedly seized control Wednesday of Iraq’s largest domestic oil refinery, prompting a bloody showdown with Iraqi security forces that underscored the instability. The refinery represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s domestic refining capability, and could prompt fuel and power shortages across the country.
With that violence as the backdrop, Democratic leaders offered support for Obama to use a 2002 law authorizing then-President George W. Bush to take action in Iraq as the legal authority for new strikes.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate notably did not object to that interpretation, and Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking GOP leader, offered public support.
“I think the authorization, the resolution authorizing use of force is still active, so I don’t think there is any requirement, legal requirement that he [seek congressional authority],” Thune said. “But I do think it would be advantageous for him to consult with Congress.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters following the White House meeting that the president didn’t think his current plans for Iraq would require authorization from lawmakers.
“The president briefed us on the situation in Iraq and indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take and indicated that he would keep us posted,” McConnell said.
McConnell, Reid, Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attended the meeting.
A White House official disputed McConnell’s account, saying flatly that the president didn’t tell congressional leaders he would never need to seek authority for action in Iraq.
However, a source familiar with the discussion said some of the leaders present “suggested the president already has existing authorities to take additional action without congress[ional] authorization.”
The posturing underscored the difficult politics of the rapidly devolving situation in Iraq. The president and congressional Democratic leaders are wary of intervening, fearing they may not be able to stem the Islamist uprising effectively. Moreover, Obama was elected in 2008 largely on his opposition to the Iraq War.
Republicans, meanwhile, appear to have little interest in a politically difficult vote authorizing new military action in Iraq. Opinion polls show the country strongly against additional engagement there.
The question of whether Obama will ask Congress to pre-approve any action in Iraq is precipitated in part by Obama’s surprise decision last year to request congressional authorization for strikes in Syria.
Bipartisan opposition to the request doomed it to certain defeat before a diplomatic breakthrough resulted in Syria’s government agreeing to destroy its chemical weapons.
In the case of Iraq, Democratic leaders are giving Obama broad cover to take action by arguing the 2002 authority gives him the right to act. There’s some irony to their position, given the White House’s support for repealing the 2002 law.
The White House itself has refused to publicly answer questions on whether Obama felt he needed — or wanted — congressional authorization were he to launch airstrikes against Sunni militants marching toward Baghdad.
“I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals about action the president might take, since, as we discussed earlier, he is still reviewing his options when it comes to direct action,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “So I think I would say we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, if we get there.”
Carney on Wednesday said the 2002 law “no longer is used for any U.S. government activities,” and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is planning to offer amendments to the Defense appropriations bill hitting the House floor as soon as Thursday that would repeal it.
Obama spent the meeting outlining his approach to dealing with the crisis, which has gripped large swaths of northern Iraq.
“The president briefed us on the approach he’s taking toward developing a strategy for Iraq,” McConnell said.
After he returned to the Capitol, Reid told reporters that it was a “good meeting” and that “everybody seemed satisfied.”
“The president is going to keep us as informed as he can as the process moves forward,” Reid said.
According to White House officials, the president has focused his work on the issue on three areas: how to confront the imminent threat from the Sunni extremists, how to foster Iraqi security forces over the short and long term, and how to pressure Iraqi leaders into more inclusive governance.
While the president is considering military action as a tool toward those efforts, the deployment of troops to Iraq remains off the table.
The U.S. also began flying manned F-18 surveillance flights over militant-controlled areas, according to Fox News. The use of the attack warplanes suggests the U.S. is hardening its posture against the militants, and the patrols could help identify suitable targets for eventual airstrikes.
Attention Thursday will return to Capitol Hill, where the Senate Armed Services Committee is slated to receive a closed-door briefing on the violence. The briefing will feature officials from the Pentagon, Defense Intelligence Agency and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
—Updated at 8:39 p.m.