Liberals press Pelosi, Obama for vote on Syrian air strikes

Liberals press Pelosi, Obama for vote on Syrian air strikes
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A growing chorus of liberal Democrats is pushing President Obama to get Congress's explicit approval before launching missile strikes into Syria.

The pressure from supporters on Capitol Hill is not only a headache for Obama, but also puts House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiTop Democrats request meeting with intel chief over sharing of classified info Overnight Defense: Fears rise over Trump-Putin summit | McCain presses Trump to hold Putin 'accountable' for hacking | Pentagon does damage control after NATO meet 'Our Cartoon President' takes on Mueller probe, NATO and Melania in second season MORE (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats in the difficult position of bucking a broad segment of their own caucus in order to protect an ally in the White House.

Scores of Democrats had signed letters a year ago advocating against military strikes targeting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without congressional backing.

Thirteen months later the enemy has a new face, but a large number of those lawmakers say they remain committed to securing Congress's role in deciding matters of war, even as Obama is claiming unilateral authority to expand the fight against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“A vote is necessary,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) told The Hill. “The president is already empowered to act forcefully against those who murdered Americans, but he should seek congressional authorization to engage in the broader, sustained combat he envisions."

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) piled on.

“It would be very reckless, in my view, for him to go in and start doing all this without getting a vote from the Congress,” he told MSNBC recently.

Pelosi, a fierce opponent of the Iraq war under the George W. Bush, has toed the line between the liberal critics and Obama by urging a congressional debate on the use-of-force question, but stopping short of calling for a vote – at least for now.

“Whether we take a vote or not, we're not at that point because we believe the president has the authority,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday.

Speaker John Boehner has also avoided calls for a vote on use-of-force authority.

In a prime-time television address Wednesday, Obama sought at once to convince the country that he plans to “hunt down” the ISIS militants “wherever they are,” while emphasizing that the U.S. operations would be far more limited than those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” Obama vowed. 

Instead, the United States will expand airstrikes on the ISIS militants – including those operating in Syria – while providing “support for partner forces” fighting to eradicate the terrorist threat. 

Obama also amplified his call for Congress to expand Title 10 – which governs military powers – to allow the Pentagon to arm and train Syrian rebels fighting both ISIS and the Syrian government.

That proposal, which the White House wants to include as part of the Republicans' continuing resolution (CR) package, has delayed Congress's effort to prevent a government shutdown, as GOP leaders are weighing whether to attach the provision to the CR or pursue a separate bill.

Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are pushing for the separate vote, arguing that an issue so serious demands a robust public debate.

“People have some legitimate questions,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said Thursday. “We ought to ask the questions before we get involved, rather than, you know, once we're in the middle of something.”

In July, McGovern championed a resolution stipulating that Obama “shall not deploy or maintain” U.S. forces “in a sustained combat role in Iraq without specific statutory authorization for such use.”

The measure passed overwhelmingly, 370 to 40. 

The disagreement now between Democratic leaders and many rank-and-file members revolves around whether the fight against ISIS has evolved to a point of “sustained combat” that would trigger the vote promoted by the McGovern resolution. 

Pelosi says it has not.

“Hopefully, we don't have to go beyond what the president is doing now [and] we don't need that vote,” she said, referring specifically to the McGovern bill. “But we stand ready to have that discussion.”

Yet that argument doesn't fly with a number of her troops, who have balked at the notion that Obama has the power to expand operations without Congress's OK.

“He must come to Congress for authorization to expand military engagement in Syria,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).

“Mr. President, come to Congress [and] get your authorization,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.).

“The president must seek – and receive – explicit authorization from Congress before deploying combat troops for any sustained mission,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.).

“If it's going to be a long-term engagement, he should come to Congress for approval,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.).

“Congress must weigh in when it comes to confronting ISIL through military action,” Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonThe Memo: Bannon says court win vindicates Trump CNN's Tapper has testy exchange with Ellison over Farrakhan Trump: Immigration policy should just be 'you can't come in' MORE (D-Minn.) and Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDems struggle with unity amid leadership tensions Fifth-ranking House Dem doubles down, says it’s time to overhaul leadership Ex-Sanders campaign organizer touts Barbara Lee as possible Pelosi replacement MORE (D-Calif.) said in a joint statement.

Yet it remains unclear how many Democrats, if any, would oppose the CR based on the inclusion of the much more limited provision for training Syrian rebels.

Asked that question Thursday, McGovern said he “very possibly” would vote against such a package.

Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi wants party leadership elections post-Thanksgiving The Hill's Morning Report — Trump denigrates NATO allies, floats 4 percent solution Dems struggle with unity amid leadership tensions MORE (D-Md.) on Thursday acknowledged the growing unrest among members of his caucus surrounding the broader use-of-force question. He suggested Congress would debate the issue when lawmakers return to Washington in November, after the midterms.

“I think, at some point in time, when we come back from the elections … there will be a consideration of a larger authorization for the use of force,” Hoyer said in an interview on C-Span's “Newsmakers” program, according to The Washington Post. 

But, with the administration threatening strikes against ISIS in Syria at any time, many liberal Democrats are wary of delaying the debate for so long.

“If this Congress is not careful, it will be as guilty as previous Congresses – which go all the way back to the '60's and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution – in giving away our constitutional authority to the White House,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

“It's not about the president,” Cleaver added, “it is about the precedent.”

Leeann Doerflein, Ludo Dawnay and Megan Caldwell contributed.