In Washington, Little Appetite for a Vote on Iraq

In Washington, Little Appetite for a Vote on Iraq

WASHINGTON — Mingling with Senate Democrats at the White House earlier this summer, President Obama had a tart comeback to the suggestion that he should seek a vote of Congress before deepening American military involvement in Iraq.

“Guys, you can’t have it both ways here,” Mr. Obama told the group, according to Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. “You can’t be ducking and dodging and hiding under the table when it comes time to vote, and then complain about the president not coming to you” for authorization.

The president’s comments were tinged with humor, Mr. Kaine said, but they reflected a serious reality that administration officials say has informed the president’s decision not to seek authorization to carry out airstrikes against militants in Iraq: Most lawmakers have little appetite for such a vote.

“This is not about an imperial presidency, it’s about a Congress that’s reluctant to cast tough votes on U.S. military action,” said Mr. Kaine, who prompted Mr. Obama’s remarks because of an opinion article he wrote for The Washington Post declaring that the president needed congressional authorization for military action in Iraq. “We should not be putting America men and women’s lives at risk if we are not willing to do the political work to reach a consensus that it’s necessary.”

Mr. Obama has sometimes embraced that principle, but seldom reaped any political reward for doing so. Last year, the president abruptly backed away from plans to carry out strikes against Syria and said he wanted congressional approval first. Congress never acted on the request, and Mr. Obama did not take any military action against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

After authorizing an air campaign against militants in Iraq, Mr. Obama has yet to seek or receive a vote in Congress for what he has described as a potentially long-term mission.

The change in approach was dictated partly by circumstance: The situation in Iraq, where thousands of members of religious minorities were facing slaughter or starvation and American personnel were threatened by the swift advance of the Sunni fighters, was arguably more urgent than the one in Syria a year ago. And Congress is in the midst of a five-week summer break.

But it also reflects a significant shift by Mr. Obama, who spent considerable political capital last year on a lobbying campaign to persuade lawmakers in both parties to back military action in Syria. That push yielded paltry support and Mr. Obama has little patience for repeating the episode now, three months before midterm congressional elections.

White House officials say that Mr. Obama does not need such a vote, arguing that his constitutional powers as commander in chief are sufficient to cover the current mission.

“The president has the authority to take the recent actions undertaken in Iraq,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. She noted that Mr. Obama provided a report to Congress on the initiation of airstrikes last week, and was keeping lawmakers informed regularly on American military efforts in Iraq.

Beyond that, senior administration officials note that congressional leaders, who met with Mr. Obama about Iraq in June, have explicitly told them Mr. Obama need not come to Congress to authorize military action.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader whose weekly conference calls with Democrats during the congressional break have been dominated by discussions of Iraq, said Mr. Obama had wide latitude to act without Congress and suggested that Republicans eager to criticize the president would not be as eager to vote.

“We’ll see where the Republicans will be who have been calling for this, that, and the other thing, if they had to vote on Iraq,” Ms. Pelosi said in San Francisco last week. She said she backed the limited mission Mr. Obama described to provide “humanitarian assistance; protect Americans; recognize that ISIL is a threat; no boots on the ground,” using an alternate name for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. “And if it gets to a place where we need congressional action, then come to Congress.”

Until then, she said, Mr. Obama “has a great deal of power to act.”

Even a number of Republicans who pressed Mr. Obama for a voice vote on military action in Syria last year are not demanding a vote in this case — at least not yet.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, who helped draft the resolution to authorize strikes against Syria, has not called for a similar measure for the current operation in Iraq. Mr. Corker said he was “encouraged” by recent developments in Iraq, including progress in the country’s political transition.

Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, the California Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called Mr. Obama’s decision to carry out airstrikes in Iraq “appropriate given the circumstances.” Mr. McKeon added in a statement that “The American people aren’t worried that the president will send the military back to Iraq; they’re worried about a deadly terrorist state that can hit us from Wall Street to Main Street.”

A number of lawmakers in both parties do say the president would need congressional approval for any broader American military campaign in Iraq. In a little-noticed move a week before leaving for its summer break, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution to bar the president from deploying American forces in a “sustained combat role” in Iraq without specific authorization.

The measure sowed concern among administration officials, who worried that the public would see the vote as a sign that Mr. Obama was considering a deeper military involvement. So the White House worked to pair the House resolution with the repeal of a 2002 law that authorized the Iraq war in the first place. “Such a repeal would go much further in giving the American people confidence that ground forces will not be sent into combat in Iraq,” Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, wrote in a letter to the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio.

But the Republican-dominated House rejected the White House footwork — an indication of the political pitfalls for Mr. Obama in a congressional debate on military action.

“It’s especially tough for this president, because he’s obviously reluctant to use military force,” said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic House member who directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “Everybody including the president recognizes that ISIS represents a malignant force in the region, that they represent a threat to us in some degree, but the president has not spelled out for Congress or to the public just what we’re willing to do or not do about it.”

Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a leading antiwar Democrat who sponsored the resolution, said that with more than 1,000 American troops in Iraq carrying out a mission whose objectives appear elastic, a vote is overdue.

“If I were the president, I’d probably want Congress to get off my back, but there is a value to this system that we have here of checks and balances and forcing people to clearly articulate what this mission is all about,” Mr. McGovern said. “We’re involved deeply enough that it is now appropriate to have Congress either authorize the continuation of this mission or not.”

But Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University who served in national security positions under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said Mr. Obama, whose decision to seek a vote on military action in Syria was akin to “a playground taunt” to Republicans who had questioned his policy, may have learned from that experience. “The truth is that Congress doesn’t like to be exposed like that,” Professor Feaver said.