Congress is at war over whether to go back to war in Iraq.
Less than five months from midterm elections and more than 11 years after Congress first authorized the war, lawmakers are wary of getting sucked back into the conflict. But Congress’ opinion may not even matter, because President Barack Obama already has the authority to act if he chooses.
The commander in chief will detail his thinking for the four top congressional leaders Wednesday, in a White House meeting which might help to get more information through the halls of the Capitol.
Until then, members are all over the place on what to do, whom to blame and whether the president is deploying the right strategy.
Obama faces splits in his own party — with anti-war Democrats such as Rep. Barbara Lee of California hoping to repeal the authorizations to use military force in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — and more hawkish members, such as House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, willing to consider air strikes to avoid Iraq becoming a new safe haven for terrorists.
While he has ruled out ground combat, Obama hasn’t ruled out air strikes against the forces of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to stem their march toward Baghdad, while pressuring Nouri al-Maliki to open his government to Sunni and Kurdish leadership.
But many Democrats say they’re inclined to stay out of Iraq’s affairs — seared from the enormous costs of that war.
Lee, who is leading an effort in the House to repeal the broad authorizations to use military force in Iraq and elsewhere as part of the debate on the Defense spending bill, is urging the president to not take military action. “The United States should not get embroiled in this sectarian warfare,” she said in an interview on MSNBC.
Lee said there should be a congressional debate on the issue.
“The American people deserve to have their members of Congress go back to debate this,” she said.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts also is strongly opposing engaging militarily in Iraq. “It would be a huge mistake,” he told CQ Roll Call.
McGovern questioned why the United States would want to prop up the Maliki government, which he called corrupt, inept and brutal.
“Tell me how this ends?” he asked.
As for the rebels, McGovern questioned how they could be attacked via airstrikes effectively: “There are no bases that say, ‘Welcome to ISIS.'”
But Hoyer told reporters air strikes should be considered, given the threat of terrorist attacks.
“This is not just a question of internal stability in Iraq, it is a question of bases for training and deployment of attacks on the United States of America,” he said.
Other Democrats seem ready to give the president some leeway but will need convincing, too.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., talked more about what he doesn’t want to do in Iraq — rather than what should be done.
“After a decade of war, we’ve all had enough. I do not support putting our men and women in harm’s way in Iraq. Families have sacrificed enough,” he said.
“The mistake was going into that war in the first place,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt. “We wasted $2 trillion, thousands of lives, ended up with a country worse off than it was to begin with, and with a leader of the country, Maliki, who told us to get out. Some would say we ought to say ‘Thank you. You told us to get out. We’re out.’
“Now, we’re saying ‘Oh, we got to go back in there, send troops, do everything, because after all they’re a danger to us. Sounds to me very much like the same arguments we heard to go in there in the first place. If Maliki’s not even willing to do some of the things he should have done for years, it kind of limits what we can do.”
But Leahy said he backs the president’s decision to send 275 troops to protect the U.S. Embassy.
“That’s reasonable, we should have them in there. We’ve got that monstrosity of an overbuilt, overpriced, outrageous embassy, but we’ve got to protect it,” he said.
Iraq also presents a pickle for embattled Democrats facing re-election, such as Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska.
“I’m not interested in any troops on the ground, and I think any military action would be very problematic,” he said.
Republican leaders, while critical of Obama’s decision not to keep troops in Iraq years ago, aren’t united on what to do either.
GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina appear to be alone in leading a drumbeat for air strikes and other military support for the Iraqi government. Republican leaders say they are waiting for the president to present a clear plan.
A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio sounded a cautionary note ahead of the Wednesday meeting with Obama.
“The speaker expects the president to offer a coherent strategy to ensure that Iraq does not descend further into lawless barbarism,” spokesman Michael Steel said. “We spent years, vast sums of money, and – most importantly – thousands of American lives to improve Iraq’s security and make America safer. Squandering that legacy would be a tragic mistake.”
Other Republican leaders were calling for a plan — but not offering one of their own.
“This would not have happened if we had left troops there,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. But Blunt wasn’t about to offer suggestions about what to do now. “The president needs to make these proposals, not me.”
John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, likened the situation to last year’s aborted attempt to woo Congress for authority to take action in Syria.
“I think what we saw in Syria and elsewhere, if the president doesn’t have a plan, Congress is not gonna just give him a rubber stamp,” he said. “We’d be interested in listening to the plan, and I’m sure trying to work with him if he’s got one. But he’s got to come up with a serious plan that enjoys a reasonable likelihood of success.”
In the end, Obama can act on his own. Multiple authorizations to use military force remain in effect giving him broad leeway.
McGovern said Congress shouldn’t be allowed to duck its responsibility.
“I think we should be on record on whether we want to restart another war in Iraq,” he said, gesturing toward the House floor.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican, said he believes that there would likely be support for airstrikes so long as there is a clearly defined objective.
“I think most Republicans … and I think probably a good number of Democrats too” would likely support airstrikes, Thune said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily something that breaks down on partisan lines.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he would ask “tough questions” once he sees what Obama proposes. Kaine said there could be a role for the United States in Iraq, working with partners or helping with humanitarian relief.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., affirmed “I do trust his judgment on this,” and that Obama will be able to find a balanced course of action, but would not say definitively if she would support airstrikes.
When pressed, she said, “We have to go after terrorists.”
Niels Lesniewski and Emma Dumain contributed to this report.