President Obama on Tuesday began a bid to convince congressional leaders — and the American people — of his strategy to defeat Islamic militants. But partisan divisions and political sensitivities in Congress make it unlikely lawmakers will agree on even a symbolic vote, much less exercise their legal authority to approve military action.
Congressional leaders, who were briefed at the White House before a planned prime-time presidential address Wednesday, have calculated that, with the midterm election just weeks away, lawmakers have little to gain from putting themselves on the record with a vote.
Despite rising public support for a muscular military posture, Americans remain weary after more than a decade of war — and although support for military action may prove unpopular, so might opposition.
Faced with the very real possibility that a growing coalition of antiwar Democrats and isolationist Republicans would defeat a resolution authorizing military force, most in Congress appear content to let the White House take the lead. Congress' failure to agree also could undermine the Pentagon and send a mixed message to U.S. allies and enemies abroad about American determination to defeat the Islamic State militant group.
Despite repeated complaints from Republicans that Obama too often has exceeded his presidential powers, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) expressed the mood of many on Capitol Hill when he suggested that the president should press ahead with military action and seek authorization from Congress retroactively.
“I think it's better if Congress would give approval, but I think it's better to do it after the fact,” said King, who supports intervention in Iraq and Syria, but worries a debate in Congress would “get bogged down.”
The situation is reminiscent of a year ago, when Obama was weighing military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Members of Congress berated the administration for failing to seek approval from the legislative branch.
Stunning many allies at home and abroad, Obama abruptly reversed course and gave lawmakers what they were demanding, a chance to vote. The War Powers Resolution was enacted to provide a check on the executive branch in the aftermath of expanded military incursions during the Vietnam War. Such a vote was averted, however, after Assad agreed to dispose of his chemical weapons.
Now, facing a similar opportunity to determine whether the U.S. should engage in a potentially dangerous and costly offense against militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, Congress is once again reluctant to put a vote behind its rhetoric.
“The duck-and-blame game should end,” said Jane Harman, the former California congresswoman who is president of the think tank Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She was among a group of foreign policy experts who met with the president this week. “My own view is I think this should be an election issue.”
In many ways, the lack of congressional action has become a decision in itself. No vote has been scheduled — a tacit acceptance of the administration's strategy.
“I'm shocked to see Congress punt on its war powers,” said Charles A. Stevenson, professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who called the lack of action an “abdication.”
“They're all scared,” Stevenson said. “They're evading their responsibility: The Democrats don't really want to vote for a war because a lot of them were elected voting against war, and the Republicans because they probably can't agree on what kind of war to approve.”
At the White House meeting Tuesday, Obama told top congressional leaders that “he has the authority he needs to take action against ISIL in accordance with the mission he will lay out in his address tomorrow night,” according to a statement from the White House. At the same time, Obama said he welcomed support from Congress as a way to demonstrate American unity to the rest of the world. “He reiterated his belief that the nation is stronger and our efforts more effective when the president and Congress work together.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) encouraged the president to take action. “The speaker expressed support for certain options that have been proposed by the president,” an aide to Boehner said, adding that it was in the nation's best interest to put in place a strategy that “takes the fight directly to ISIL in a decisive fashion.”
Americans appear increasingly open to the idea: 61% believe taking action is in the national interest, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday.
Obama and previous presidents have bypassed the legislative branch to engage the U.S. military in overseas interventions, usually by invoking the authority inherent in the president's role as commander in chief. Some argue that previous congressional approvals for military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could be used by Obama to justify the action against Islamic State.
The administration declined to seek congressional approval for U.S. participation in a NATO-led campaign of airstrikes against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in 2011, despite objections from Congress. At the time, the White House asserted that its “regular consultation” with Congress was sufficient for what it described as only a supportive role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation.
Fed up with the what many liberal and libertarian lawmakers view as mission creep in the latest campaign against Islamic State, a robust House majority voted this summer for a resolution limiting the president's future military actions. Some lawmakers eager to vote on the latest action have introduced bills that are unlikely to get votes.
“The idea that we don't want to talk about this because it's politically inconvenient I think is inexcusable,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the resolution's author. “I understand the importance of politics. I've been in the business a long time. But some things trump politics. Whether or not we're going to get involved in another war is worth debating and voting on.”
Few current lawmakers were in Congress for the vote in 2002 that authorized the war in Iraq, a wrenching exercise that hobbled some reelection campaigns when antiwar attitudes grew in subsequent years.
Hoping to gird Republicans for the November election, when the party is favored to expand its majority in the House and could win control of the Senate, campaign officials invited former Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps the party's most prominent defense hawk, to deliver a message Tuesday on the importance of a beefed-up national security stance.
But even the Cheney visit failed to persuade libertarian-leaning Republicans to support the emerging military strategy, reflective of the split within the party.
“We had a golden opportunity to do the right thing, that also would have been the politically expedient thing, to vote to not go to war in Syria,” said tea party Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). He said he believed the drumbeat of war had been driven by the videotaped slayings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Islamic State. “I don't think two beheadings justifies a war. I think justice is warranted, but I don't think a war is warranted over two YouTubes.”
With or without action from Congress, some lawmakers are confronting the issue directly.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) plans to hold a town-hall meeting in his California district and use technology to allow attendees to register their opinion on what Congress should do.
The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, said the issue was not one that lawmakers could avoid even if it didn't come to the floor.
“All of them are going to have to answer questions in their districts,” he said. “They're in campaigns and they're going to state their opinions.”
Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.