WASHINGTON -- The House overwhelmingly passed a resolution Friday that would bar President Barack Obama from sending forces to Iraq in a "sustained combat role" without congressional approval, a bill likely to have greater symbolic than legal effect.
The measure still must pass the Senate to force a showdown with the president. And it risks opening up several questions related to the Constitution's separation of powers between executive and legislative branches, even if Obama and his top military advisers already have ruled out sending combat troops to help Iraq fight extremist insurgents.
Friday's legislation was approved by a 370-40 vote after Republican and Democratic lawmakers emphasized the need to reassert what they argued is their constitutional control over authorizing military force.
"This resolution makes one clear statement," said its sponsor, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "If the president decides we should further involve our military in Iraq, he needs to work with Congress to authorize it."
"The time to debate our re-engagement in Iraq, should it come to that, is before we are caught in the heat of the moment," he said. "Not when the first body bags come home. Not when the first bombs start to fall. Not when the worst-case scenario is playing out on our TV screens."
More than 800 U.S. forces are in Iraq. More than half are providing security for the embassy and U.S. personnel. American service members also are involved in improving U.S. intelligence, providing security cooperation and conducting assessments of Iraqi capabilities.
U.S. officials say the Sunni extremists who call themselves the Islamic State pose a significant threat to the American homeland. The group has expanded from its base in Syria and seized a series of towns and cities in Iraq in recent months, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city.
Officials are particularly concerned about people bearing passports from the U.S. and the European Union who have entered the fighting in Iraq and Syria. They worry that the foreign fighters could be radicalized by their time on the battlefield and return home to attack the West. The FBI estimates that roughly 100 American passport-holders have joined the fray, along with thousands of Europeans.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk told lawmakers during a pair of congressional hearings this week that the fighters in Iraq and Syria may pose a bigger threat to the U.S. than al Qaeda, the group that orchestrated the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. He urged the U.S. to try to isolate the militants with Islamic State from other groups fighting in Iraq.