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Congress Divided On Whether Obama Can Act Alone In Iraq

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Congress is divided on whether or President Barack Obama can take unilateral military action in Iraq. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)
Congress is divided on whether or President Barack Obama can take unilateral military action in Iraq. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- As American involvement in Iraq inches forward, some key members of Congress from both parties are deftly keeping their distance from the debate over authorizing military intervention.

The bipartisan consensus emerging among leadership on the Hill is that the President has leeway to act in Iraq as long as the mission remains narrowly defined.

It's a hands-off approach that has afforded the White House a bit more flexibility when it comes to making strategic decisions. On Monday, the administration announced that it would be sending an additional 200 troops to Baghdad to protect the airport and American Embassy there. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told The Huffington Post that the administration continued to believe that it did not need a new congressional authorization even in light of that new troop movement.

It's also an approach that once again illuminates the seemingly elastic nature of the relationship between the Obama administration and Congress when it comes to military affairs. Less than a year ago, the president chose to seek authorization from Congress to launch air strikes in Syria. Prior to that, however, he did not seek authorization for airstrikes in Libya.

The refusal to get congressional approval for the Libya strikes incited howls from members of the legislative branch at the time. But those howls seem relatively muted with respect to Iraq, where congressional leadership has so far agreed with the president's argument that the authority already exists as long as the mission remains protecting American assets. After what he called a "good meeting" with the president last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Bloomberg that Obama said he could act unilaterally in Iraq under the existing statutes. McConnell said that the president "indicated he didn’t feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take. And indicated he would keep us posted.”

Other congressional leaders haven't just acknowledged the president's power to act, they've explicitly endorsed it.

"I don't think there needs to be any more authorization," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told The Huffington Post. "I think there has been sufficient authorization."

John Thune (R-S.D.), the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, agreed with Reid. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Roll Call that though he hoped the President would consult Congress for authorization in Iraq, he recognized that Obama could act alone based on past authorizations.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), meanwhile, said she did "not believe the President needs any further legislative authority to pursue the particular options for increased security assistance discussed today." And while House Republican leaders have stayed largely out of the matter, a House GOP leadership aide speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss leadership's thinking, said of the need for authorization: “It’s most likely a moot point, since we already have an authorization for force in Iraq.”

In 2001, Congress passed two Authorizations for Use of Military Force that gave the president broad power to take unilateral military action "as he determines necessary and appropriate" to defend the country against those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks and against any threats to America's national security in Iraq. But what's unclear is whether or not either AUMF is applicable to the current crisis in the region.

Not everyone on the Hill agrees the past authorizations are sufficient legal grounds for military action now. Some members of Congress say President Obama must come to them to get the authority to move forward militarily in Iraq. And they note that the president himself said in a speech last year that the AUMF needed to be updated.

"President Obama said in May 2013 that he would work with Congress to update the 2001 AUMF," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a close Obama ally, wrote in an op-ed last week. "It is June 2014, and there has been no progress. The White House should submit to Congress a new draft authorization to deal with today’s threats. Now is clearly the time for this debate."

Kaine added that the president could not act under the existing AUMF because ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is unaffiliated with al Qaeda.

Kaine is currently working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to propose an amendment that would clarify what kinds of terrorist groups the president could target under the AUMF, Defense News reported this week.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) also told BuzzFeed last month that the president needed to seek authorization from Congress for a long-term military engagement in Iraq because the AUMF had "functionally expired."

Concern about the relevancy of the 2001 authorization has crossed partisan lines in the Senate. In January, Sen. Rand Paul (R-K.Y.) introduced a bipartisan bill to repeal the Iraq authorization, and it earned the support of liberal senators such as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

“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,” Paul told Buzzfeed last month. “I don’t think you can have a Congress of 10 years ago make a decision for the people here 10 years later.”

But Paul and others appear to be in the minority so far. Several of the Senate's more hawkish members, including McCain and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have said the president has authority under the existing AUMF to act unilaterally in Iraq. The vast majority, however, seem to be staying far away from the debate.

The Huffington Post contacted the offices of more than 80 senators who have yet to make a public comment about the president's authority under the existing AUMF.

Many declined to weigh in, but several of those who did said that the president's authority to act alone depended on the kind of action that he wanted to take and the severity of the threat.

A spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that the senator opposed any kind of combat mission in Iraq, and that the senator believed the president "only has the authority to conduct targeted counter-terrorism." A spokesperson for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), said that absent a "direct threat to America or Americans," the president must get approval from Congress. Through a spokesman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that the president should be "consulting Congress" with respect to military action in Iraq.

In statements passed along by their spokespersons, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) both hedged on taking a concrete position and said that the president may need to consult with Congress depending on what kind of action he took.

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