WASHINGTON — For weeks, Capitol Hill has watched U.S. military engagement in Iraq with quiet unease.
Democrats and Republicans warily backed President Barack Obama’s limited airstrikes against Sunni militants, but nobody — aside from Sen. John McCain and a few fellow hawks — demonstrated an appetite for deeper involvement.
Now, though, the gruesome execution of American journalist James Foley has drawn a raw, emotional reaction from lawmakers in both parties, with many issuing statements condemning the Islamic State, the group responsible for Foley’s killing, and some urging Obama to redouble the fight against it.
There were signs Thursday that the Obama administration is weighing that, with the White House and the Pentagon refusing to rule out military action against the group in Syria.
But far from satisfying Congress, a wider conflict could put lawmakers, particularly Democrats, in a difficult position, since most deeply oppose any new war in the Middle East.
“Most Democrats and Republicans are extraordinarily wary of being sucked into a large occupation, both because it will kill a lot of Americans and because we saw in Iraq the last time that it didn’t work,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
A growing number of Republicans are criticizing Obama for not doing more.
But few of these Republicans have laid out exactly what they want Obama to do to intensify the battle.
Even conducting airstrikes in Syria would be a politically fraught step.
The last time the president sought to put military action in Syria to a congressional vote — a missile strike after Syria’s chemical weapons attacks last year — he faced an overwhelming defeat that he avoided only by seizing on an alternative Russian diplomatic proposal.
Little has changed in Congress since, even if a vote to use military action in response to an attack on Americans would naturally draw more support than intervening in a distant civil war.
“This horrendous event has got a lot of folks in Congress talking,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said of Foley’s killing, “but it doesn’t give us a license to ignore the lessons of George W. Bush in Iraq.”