Obama’s War on ISIS Could Advance Without Congress
Policy + Politics

Obama’s War on ISIS Could Advance Without Congress

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama is seeking congressional buy-in for his plan to expand the U.S. military campaign against ISIS in concert with NATO allies. He is also strongly signaling he doesn’t really need or want formal approval by Congress before lawmakers depart again through the Nov. 4 midterm election.

During an interview on Meet the Press that aired Sunday, the president said he wants Congress to “understand and support our plan” and provide additional resources, but that “I’m confident I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people…. I do think it’s important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy-in, to debate it… [but] we’re not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops.”

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The message was hammered home Monday afternoon by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest that while Obama would appreciate congressional backing for the response to the ISIS menace in Iraq and Syria, he isn’t counting on a formal vote of authorization to move ahead.

“The president is not in a position where he sets the legislative floor calendar for either the House or the Senate,” Earnest said during a White House press briefing. Instead, he’s interested in consulting and “trying to be as candid as possible with leaders in Congress about what he’s contemplating and what the policy implications are of some of the decisions he’s prepared to make.”

Earnest added, “It’s important in the mind of the president for Congress to be a partner in these decisions. They have a solemn responsibility as elected representatives of the American people to be engaged in this process. But ultimately it’s the responsibility of the commander in chief to make the kinds of decisions related to our military that rest on the shoulders of the president.”

Obama is scheduled to meet Tuesday at the White House with four congressional leaders – Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). He’s expected to brief them on his meeting with NATO leaders last week and outline an emerging plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS forces that have terrorized and captured large areas of Iraq and Syria.

Related: Why Taking on ISIS Could Be a Huge Fiscal Fiasco

Many on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama for allowing the threat of ISIS to metastasize in the Middle East resulting in the slaughter of scores of Iraqis and Syrians and the beheadings of two American journalists. But lawmakers, like many Americans, are divided on how far the administration should go in renewing existing military authorization in Iraq. 

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 71 percent of Americans support airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, up from 54 percent just three weeks ago. Nearly as many -- 65 percent -- support the more controversial action of broadening the air strikes to include Syria, a strategy the administration is now condsidering. "That is more than double the level of support a year ago for launching airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons," The Post noted. 

The poll found that the support reflects growing perceptions of the threat posed by ISIS. About 90 percent of Americans now see the militants as a serious threat to vital U.S. interests.

In their haste to clear their desks in the next two weeks and then depart until after the Nov 4 election, it’s also far from clear that lawmakers are willing to invest the time it would take to debate and pass a new authorization resolution. 

Boehner said recently that he believes Obama has authority to target ISIS in Iraq but that it is “questionable” whether that authority extends to airstrikes in Syria. “It’s his responsibility as the chief executive to outline a plan that will protect American interests, protect American lives both at home and abroad,” Boehner said in a radio show appearance. “And until the president is willing to lay out a plan, the Congress has very few options ahead of it.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said Congress basically has two options for responding to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Either approve Obama’s request for $500 million of supplemental funds to train and arm the moderate Free Syrian Army and use the measure to grant expanded authority, or debate and vote on major authorization legislation spelling out the administration’s expanded role.

Related: Obama: Time to ‘Go on Some Offense’ Against ISIS

“In defense of Congress, in the absence of any clear plan from the administration or the Pentagon about various military paths that may be taken, it’s a little unrealistic to expect Congress to come to some consensus on understanding and approving the path forward,” O’Hanlon told The Fiscal Times. “They don’t want to give the administration a blank check.  

“But they also don’t want to allow their skittishness to overly constrain the president from some things he may want to do or he may need to do later on,” O’Hanlon added. “Committed use of the special operations troops, for example. I think ruling those out would be a big mistake. And if the authorization sort of precluded that it would be worth less than nothing.”

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