Will the Senate hold a vote less than two months before the midterm elections to authorize military strikes in Iraq?
Democrats in both chambers have called for Congress to take action, but it’s a vote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) almost certainly wants to avoid as he seeks to keep the upper chamber majority in his party’s hands.
“The base doesn’t want airstrikes and Democratic swing voters who tend to be more blue-collar don’t want re-involvement in Iraq. So I think many Democrats would face a challenge voting for this thing,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist.
Lake said Democrats are in a box because if President Obama continues military action without congressional approval, that is likely to have political reverberations as well.
“The second problem with airstrikes is that if they’re unauthorized all the controversy hurts the president’s job performance numbers, which is bad for Democrats too. You really need the president’s job performance numbers higher,” she said.
Obama said the strikes, which began more than a week ago, will be open-ended, something Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) cited in arguing that Congress should take action to authorize the military action.
“This is especially the case since the president has indicated that our renewed military engagement in Iraq could be a long-term project,” Kaine said in a statement this week.
Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate running in a tough race for Iowa’s Senate seat, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week asking for details about the deployment of 130 additional military personnel to Iraq.
He said one of his “primary concerns” was that Obama “had not sought congressional approval” for the strikes.
“I remain firmly opposed to another long, open-ended commitment that places our troops in harm's way and am deeply concerned by the recent decision to redeploy troops in Iraq,” he wrote.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told The Hill Friday that Congress should have a full debate over whether to continue limited military action in Iraq.
Sanders acknowledged that insurgents in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pose a threat, but worries that U.S. intervention could become a slippery slope.
“I do not want to see us caught again in a ground war,” he said. “I do believe there needs to be a heck of a lot of discussion in the Congress as to what our long-term plans are in Iraq and in the region.”
House Democrats have also pressed for Obama to seek congressional approval if strikes last well into the fall.
But many other lawmakers would prefer not to take up this charged issue weeks before an election.
“A member of Congress is always most politically safe if they limit their activities to riding in parades,” acknowledged Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).
“One of the many reasons Congress doesn’t act is because it’s politically risky to take any action at all,” he added.
But Sherman argues it is Congress’s responsibility to hold a vote.
“We do have a Constitution, we ought to [have a vote] in a nonpartisan way,” he said.
In the letter Obama sent to Congress notifying them of the strikes under the War Powers Act, the president said U.S. action would be limited.
Under the act, the president can take limited actions for as long as 90 days without congressional authority.
In June, Democratic Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) added an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that requires the administration to seek the advice and consent of Congress before sustained military action in Iraq. The bill passed 340-73.
Jens Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University who specializes in international law, said Obama must receive congressional permission if he wants to extend military action beyond the 60-day window and the 30-day wind-down period provided by the War Powers Act.
He said the action cannot be covered by the 2002 Iraqi use-of-force resolution or the 2001 resolution authorizing force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
“I don’t think you can shoehorn this into the original Iraq invasion authorization because it’s just so far removed from the original Iraqi invasion and I don’t think you can shoehorn it into the 2001 AUMF [authorization of military force], which was specifically designed to respond to organizations responsible for the 9/11 attacks,” he said.