It’s now clear Congress will not block President Barack Obama from using force in Iraq if he chooses, despite opposition primarily from the president’s own party.
A key takeaway from a series of late-night votes on the Defense appropriations bill is that a sizable antiwar group of House Democrats oppose Obama’s plan to engage militarily, and don’t support his plans to continue a global war on terror beyond the end of this year.
While the House itself preserved the president’s authority to act under the 2002 authorization to use military force in Iraq, and the broad, 2001 anti-terror authorization, Democrats led by Rep. Barbara Lee of California overwhelmingly voted to defund both war authorities.
And most House Democrats are now on record opposing combat operations in Iraq , even as Obama has indicated he will send up to 300 military advisers to the country and is prepared to launch strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
A small group of Republicans joined 142 Democrats voting to bar spending on combat in Iraq. The amendment failed 165-250.
“We must not let history repeat itself in Iraq,” Lee said in a statement. “The reality is there is no military solution in Iraq.”
Lee, the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Peace and Security Task Force, was backed by CPC Co-Chairmen Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Reps. Janice Hahn of California and Rick Nolan of Minnesota also were lead co-sponsors.
Their message to Obama was clear: Keep the U.S. military out of it.
“There is no ‘part way’ when it comes to military involvement,” Grijalva said in a statement.
“Airstrikes and sending combat troops to Iraq is not the way forward,” Ellison said.
“We’ve given Iraq a chance. Now they need to stand on their own,” Nolan said. “This is a 1,400-year-old conflict, and unless we are prepared to bankrupt ourselves spending another 1,400 years policing it, we need to stay out.”
Senate Democrats seem to be reluctantly accepting of the president’s approach — for now, and are happy he doesn’t plan to engage in ground combat. But some of them want Obama to come to Congress if operations continue for more than a short period of time.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan said the president should only launch strikes if Iraqi leaders of the three major sects — Sunni, Kurd and Shiite — jointly ask the United States to do so first.
Obama has urged the Iraqi government to take steps to have a more inclusive government, but he has said he’s prepared to strike ISIL . Incoming White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the president’s decision to target ISIL was not limited to the borders of Iraq alone. Earnest noted that the president has taken direct action against terrorists in other countries, including Somalia, Yemen and Libya, and is “resolved” to do what it takes to secure the nation.
But a contingent of Democratic hawks remains, even in the House.
On the House Iraq combat amendment, four of the 44 Democrats who voted “no” were party leaders: Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
Hoyer told CQ Roll Call that given the instability in Iraq, now isn’t the right time to tie the administration’s hands.
“I think we’re in a particularly unstable situation right now in Iraq and indeed in Syria, as well,” Hoyer said. “And I think it was time to sort of take stock and not to take actions with the context of what is a very volatile situation.”
Other Democrats to vote “no” were two veterans, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Duckworth told CQ Roll Call that she has a unique understanding of war that allows her to see the multiple dimensions of the amendment blocking funding for combat in Iraq — and she said the amendment gave Obama too little flexibility.
“If you’re gonna send in airstrikes, then you need a contingency team ready to go in case you have a down aviator, and I know a little something about being shot down over Iraq,” said Duckworth, who lost both legs during her military service.
Another “no” vote came from Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y.
“After two long wars, the American people are tired and weary, and so am I, and the Iraq war was fed to us on a lie and with faulty information,” Engel said Friday. “Forty-four hundred Americans died, a trillion dollars and people want us out of there, and so do I.” But the recent chaos, Engel conceded, “gives us pause to have absolutes. I do not think this is time for absolutes.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified Barbara Lee.
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