WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and congressional leaders believe he does not need authorization from Congress for some steps he might take to quell the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency sweeping through Iraq, the Senate's top Republican and Capitol Hill aides said after the president briefed senior lawmakers Wednesday.
The prospect of the president sidestepping Congress sets up a potential new clash between the White House and lawmakers, particularly if Obama should launch strikes with manned aircrafts or take other direct U.S. military action in Iraq. Administration officials have said airstrikes have become less a focus of recent deliberations but have also said the president could order such a step if intelligence agencies can identify clear targets on the ground.
Obama huddled in the Oval Office for over an hour to discuss options for responding the crumbling security situation in Iraq with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Speaking to reporters as he returned to the Capitol, McConnell said the president "indicated he didn't feel he had any need for authority from us for steps that he might take."
Pelosi concurred with the president, saying in a statement after the meeting that Obama does not need "any further legislative authority to pursue the particular options for increased security assistance discussed today." She did not specify what options were discussed.
The White House has publicly dodged questions about whether Obama might seek congressional approval if he decides to take military action. Last summer, Obama did seek approval for possible strikes against Syria, but he scrapped the effort when it became clear that lawmakers would not grant him the authority.
However, administration officials have suggested that the president may be able to act on his own in this case because Iraq's government has requested U.S. military assistance.
"I think it certainly is a distinction and difference worth noting," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday of the comparisons to the Syrian situation.
In addition, an authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, passed by Congress in 2002, is still on the books and could potentially be used as a rationale for the White House acting without additional approval. Before the outburst of violence in Iraq, Obama had called for that authorization to be repealed.
Some lawmakers were outraged when Obama launched military action in Libya in 2011 with minimal consultation with Congress and no formal authorization from Capitol Hill. More recently, some in Congress have complained that the White House did not consult on final plans for releasing five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for freeing detained American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
White House officials offered no timeline Wednesday for how soon Obama might decide on how to respond to the fast-moving militants from the group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has seized Mosul, Tikrit and other towns in Iraq as the country's military melted away.
Obama's decision-making on airstrikes has been complicated by intelligence gaps that resulted from the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, which left the country largely off-limits to American operatives. Intelligence agencies are now trying to close gaps and identify possible targets that include insurgent encampments, training camps, weapons caches and other stationary supplies, according to U.S. officials.
Officials also suggest that the U.S. could more easily identify targets on the ground if Obama would send in additional American trainers to work with Iraqi security forces. Obama is considering that possibility, the officials say, though he has ruled out sending troops for combat missions.
The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe classified details and private discussions by name.
Obama is certain to face resistance from congressional Democrats if he launches any major military response to the crisis in Iraq.
Two House Democrats - John Garamendi of California and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii - said Wednesday they would offer an amendment to the defense spending bill that would require congressional approval before any sustained military action in Iraq.
The House is debating the defense bill and is scheduled to finish it this week.