President Obama has called congressional leaders to the White House Wednesday to outline his plan for stopping Iraq’s spiral into chaos.
The effort is aimed at building support for possible military strikes on Iraq, as extremists in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threaten the capital city of Baghdad.
Yet Obama also risks watching Iraq descend into chaos on his watch, which would create a haven for al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups just more than three years after the president ordered the last U.S. troops out of the country.
That raises the stakes for Wednesday afternoon’s meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSchumer calls for Senate probe into Russian interference Senate passes stopgap funding bill, averting shutdown Senate advances funding measure, avoiding shutdown MORE (R-Ky.), House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
By carefully building support among Congress’s leaders for more aggressive steps in Iraq, Obama could circumvent the need to ask Congress to approve a resolution authorizing force in Iraq in advance.
In 2013, Obama suffered an embarrassment when he decided to ask Congress to approve a resolution authorizing force against Syria for that country’s use of chemical weapons.
Both Republicans and Democrats turned on the president, who only avoided a painful legislative defeat, when Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a chemical weapons deal that allowed Obama to save some face.
Both Reid and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Tuesday offered some early cover for Obama to take action without approval by Congress.
Both said the president did not need lawmaker approval to launch missile strikes.
“Under the existing authorization for the use of force, I think they have that [power],” said Hoyer, referring to a 2002 law that authorized President George W. Bush to use force in Iraq.
Reid, who has ardently defended Obama’s foreign policy decision in recent weeks, also said Tuesday that Congress did not need to grant additional approval.
Such views are likely to be controversial within the Democratic Party, where some can scarcely believe a president who came to power by opposing the war in Iraq might be on the verge of starting a new one.
Even Hoyer acknowledged he doesn’t know how many Democrats in the caucus agree with him on the issue. But he predicted a significant number would likely support such a military intervention.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has co-sponsored legislation to repeal the 2002 resolution authorizing military force in Iraq, said Obama should consult with Congress.
“I certainly believe that the president always has to get congressional approval,” said Kaine, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “If there’s an emergency, you may need to come back and get a congressional ratification. That’s the way the process is supposed to work.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), another Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, backed Kaine’s point of view.
“If he’s asking for any sustained authorization, he’s got to go Congress. I think the Iraq AUMF is functionally obsolete,” said Murphy.
Murphy also questioned whether the broader authorization for use of military force passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would give Obama authority to strike ISIS.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a possible presidential candidate in 2016, said Obama could not rely on a resolution passed more than 10 years ago, when many members of Congress were not yet elected.
“A new war has started, and if people want to go be involved in a new war, the job of Congress is to vote on it,” he said. “I don’t think you can have a Congress of 10 years ago make a decision for the people here 10 years later.”
One of the biggest questions facing Obama and Congress is what can be accomplished by striking ISIS fighters with drones or warplanes.
Many lawmakers and administration officials say military action alone is not enough to restore the peace and insist that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must reform his government to be more inclusive of Sunnis.
But senior lawmakers have lost faith in al-Maliki, raising doubts about the wisdom of authorizing military force without a political plan in place.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a defender of the Iraqi surge who lost to Obama in the 2008 race for the White House, have called for al-Maliki’s resignation.