WASHINGTON — The White House circulated a proposal Tuesday to authorize the Pentagon to fight Islamic State terrorists without an "enduring offensive combat" role, an ambiguous phrase designed to satisfy lawmakers with widely varying views on the need for U.S. ground operations.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J, describing the proposal to reporters, said President Barack Obama would seek an authorization for the use of force that would expire after three years. It would end the approval for operations in Iraq that Congress passed in 2002.
Menendez spoke after he and other Democratic senators met privately with top White House aides, on the eve of an anticipated formal request for legislation from the president.
"Hopefully there will not be a significant delay in Congress acting," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
The meetings unfolded against a fresh reminder of the threat posed by terrorists who occupy large areas of Syria and Iraq — the confirmed death of a 26-year-old American aid worker who had been held hostage by the group.
Obama pledged to bring anyone responsible for Kayla Mueller's captivity and death to justice "no matter how long it takes."
Of immediate concern was a legislative struggle — the search for a compromise that could satisfy Democrats who oppose the use of American ground forces in the fight against IS, and Republicans who favor at least leaving the possibility open.
Menendez, in describing the White House's opaque formulation, said it remained subject to modification. "That's where the rub will be" as the White House tries to win approval for the legislation, he said.
One influential Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said it was "bizarre" for Obama to be asking lawmakers to limit his own power as commander in chief.
A senior Democrat, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, said she has significant questions about the president's proposal. "I don't know what the word 'enduring' means. I am very apprehensive about a vague, foggy word," she said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was more emphatic after a separate meeting on the other side of the Capitol. "I'm not for boots on the ground," she said, referring to U.S. combat forces.
Menendez also said it was not yet clear if the proposal would cancel a 2001 authorization for the use of force that Congress approved shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Republicans control both houses of Congress, and presidents generally court bipartisan support for legislation of the type Obama now seeks.
Several other lawmakers who were briefed in earlier meetings, said the president would likely seek legislation targeted exclusively against the fighters seeking establishment of an Islamic state, wherever they are and whatever name they use.
Public sentiment indicates general support for the airstrikes that have been underway for months, but less for the use of American ground troops on the heels of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In an AP-GfK poll taken in late January and early February, 58 percent of those surveyed said they favor U.S. involvement in airstrikes, which Obama ordered months ago. Only 31 percent backed deployment of U.S. troops on the ground.
Apart from the midday meeting with Democrats in the Capitol attended by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, some Republicans expressed concern with other elements of the administration's emerging proposal.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said administration officials had told him it would not provide for the protection of U.S.-trained Syrian rebel troops on the ground in the event of an air attack by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
"It's an unsound military strategy. I think it's immoral if the authorization doesn't allow for us to counter Assad's air power," he said.
There was little evident dispute in Congress that new legislation was needed, both to replace outdated authorization and also to underscore a bipartisan desire to defeat the terrorists seeking an Islamic state. The group has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, imposed a violent form of Sharia law and beheaded several hostages from the United States and other Western countries. Last week, it distributed a horrifying videotape showing the killing-by-burning of a Jordanian pilot.
Mueller's death was the latest event to produce calls for retaliation.
Republicans praised Obama's willingness to seek legislation, up to a point.
"This president, you know, is prone to unilateral action. But when it comes to national security matters, and particularly now fighting this barbaric threat — not only the region but to our own security — I think it's important to come to Congress and get bipartisan support," said John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate's second-ranking Republican leader.
Obama so far has relied on congressional authorizations that President George W. Bush used to justify military action after 9/11. He said last year he had the legal authority necessary to deploy more than 2,700 U.S. troops to train and assist Iraqi security forces and conduct ongoing airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Laurie Kellman and Alan Fram contributed to this report.