President Obama on Thursday said his administration has not yet developed a comprehensive strategy to counter Islamist militants operating inside Syria.
"I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet," Obama said.
Noting media reports suggesting the president was weighing expanding airstrikes into Syria, Obama said "folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are."
"We need to make sure that we've got clear plans, that we're developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress and make sure that their voices are heard," Obama said.
The president has already authorized airstrikes against ISIS fighters operating in Iraq without congressional approval, and on Thursday defended that decision as being part of his duty as commander in chief.
"That requires me to act fast based on information I receive if an embassy of ours or a consulate of ours is being threatened," Obama said.
But lawmakers — including prominent Democrats, including Sen. Tim KaineTim KaineDecaying DC bridge puts spotlight on Trump plan Booker to vote against Tillerson Senate Democrats brace for Trump era MORE (D-Va.) — have asked the president to come to Congress to seek explicit congressional approval for an expanded military campaign.
"I am calling for the mission and objectives for this current significant military action against (ISIS) to be made clear to Congress, the American people, and our men and women in uniform," Kaine said in a statement. "And Congress should vote up or down on it.”
"I urge the administration to use the next two weeks to clearly define the strategy and objectives of its mission against (ISIS), then bring it to Congress for a debate and authorization vote," Kaine added.
Obama said the administration needed time to develop a "broader regional strategy" and bring in international partners to help stabilize Syria.
"We are gonna work politically and diplomatically with folks in the region," Obama said. "And we're gonna cobble together the kind of coalition that we need for a long-term strategy as soon as we are able to fit together the military, political and economic components of that strategy. There will be a military aspect to that. And it's gonna be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money."
The president said his primary focus at the time was making sure that ISIS "does not overrun Iraq," and protecting American personnel on the ground there.
"Our core priority right now is just to make sure that our folks are safe and to do an effective assessment of Iraqi and Kurdish capabilities," Obama said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump to meet with congressional leaders Monday: report Meet Trump's secret weapon on infrastructure Senate confirms first nominees of Trump era MORE (R-Ky.) seized on Obama's comment in a statement issued Thursday, saying the president "needs to develop a regional strategy" to defeat ISIS.
"The President needs to present this plan to the Congress, and the American people, and where the President believes he lacks authority to execute such a strategy, he needs to explain to the Congress how additional authority for the use of force will protect America," McConnell said.
The Kentucky Republican went on to urge Obama "to exercise some leadership" on the issue.
White House aides scrambled to clarify the president’s comments, with press secretary Josh Earnest tweeting that Obama "was explicit — as he has been in the past — about the comprehensive strategy that we'll use to confront" ISIS.
Another White House official said Obama was "candid" in describing the strategy during his press conference.
The official noted that the president said he had directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare a range of options and that he planned to meet later Thursday with his National Security Council staff to "continue to develop that strategy."
This story was updated at 5:56 p.m.