A day before President Obama delivers a major speech laying out his strategy for defeating ISIS, members of Congress seemed torn between wanting to assert their authority on when the U.S. goes to war and wanting to avoid a controversial vote less than two months before the 2014 midterm elections.
However, in a meeting at the White House Tuesday afternoon, the president told top congressional leaders he doesn’t believe he needs congressional authorization for the strategy he’ll advance when he addresses the nation tonight at 9 p.m. ET. According to a readout of the meeting from the White House, though, he told the leaders “he would welcome action by the Congress that would aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united” in battling ISIS.
Top congressional leaders didn’t immediately object to the president’s assertion that he doesn’t need their approval – which is particularly surprising in light of a Washington Post report that the president intends to strike the terror group not just in Iraq, where the U.S. has personnel and facilities, but also in Syria, where the U.S. has no significant presence.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), the top Republican in Washington, “stated he would support the president if he chose to deploy the military to help train and play an advisory role for the Iraqi Security Forces and assist with lethal targeting of ISIL leadership,” according to a readout of the meeting from Boehner’s staff.
The American people are just as torn as Congress about how to deal with ISIS. Recent polling finds a plurality of Americans would still prefer to see the U.S. take a less prominent role in world affairs. Yet that number has fallen from 47 percent to 40 percent in the past five months, while the percentage preferring a more active role has jumped from 19 percent to 27 percent.
Earlier on Tuesday, lawmakers said it was clear why Obama is reluctant to request authorization from Congress: He isn’t sure he’ll get it.
“Until he gets a sense that’s really doable, he doesn’t want to completely rely on that,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told CNN. “He doesn’t want to take the position that that’s fully necessary. At the same time, from my point of view it is a necessity and I hope we take it up.”
Schiff, like many other Democrats, is leery of allowing another president to wage war as he sees fit.
On MSNBC, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) said, “Congress has to vote before we undertake military action for more than 60 or 90 days and that vote ought to confine the president to air action” and the authority to take “extraordinary ground action” to rescue pilots and the like.
Other Democrats, though, weren’t in a hurry to demand an authorization vote.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) was emphatic, saying it was too soon to stake out positions on legislative proscriptions for what Obama can or can’t do in leading a NATO response to ISIS: “I think it’s a mistake to get involved in procedures” until the president has outlined his plan and rallied public support, said Levin. “To start talking about what is inside a resolution and whether a resolution is required or not required … to get involved in those kinds of things before [administration briefings] take place is a mistake and will lead to a divisiveness instead of what I hope will be a coming together behind a strong position which I expect will come down from the president.”
Republicans, for the most part, called for Congress to vote on the president’s plan once it is released.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said, “I want to be very supportive of strong and resolute action . . . This is a perfect time for Congress to debate and pass an authorization that not only will allow this president to act but future presidents to act in this war against terrorism.”
He added, “This isn’t going to go away. We can defeat ISIS, but al Qaeda metastasized in different forms in different countries. So I’m supportive of that, but I’m highly concerned, though, of how long it has taken this president to acknowledge reality. A perfect example of this is that when ISIS took over Fallujah, the president referred to ISIS as a JV team. That’s not acknowledging reality… And I’m concerned about how he’s talking right now about how this [war against ISIS] is going to take three years. I don’t believe that’s a serious effort. Do we really want ISIS surviving for three years?”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said, “I think we should” vote on a resolution authorizing expanded military action by Obama, and “I think the president makes a mistake by not asking for one…. That does not mean he won’t get support for whatever he’s trying to do, but constitutionally, the best thing to do is authorize.”
Cole said he thought authorization would also be better for Obama politically. “He would get bipartisan support, and show both the international community and the domestic political community that this country is really behind him. But if he fails to do that, he runs the risk down the road of people saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t authorize that.’ And if something gets tough or goes wrong – and war is a pretty unpredictable exercise – I think you want to go into it as united as you can.”
Even before the White House meeting, some lawmakers said they’d be able to demonstrate their authority on the issue in a way that falls short of endorsing a particular strategy.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he thinks Congress will support U.S. air strikes against ISIS in Syria, “but it will depend upon the president laying out his strategy, explaining that NATO allies are going to join us in this campaign, along with Australia and their air force. And explaining also that the Arab League – we’re engaging to try to bring them on board – and the Gulf States are going to be supportive of this effort,” he told MSNBC.
Royce said he doubts Congress will have to pass a resolution of approval, but there will have to be a vote on an appropriations bill to provide $500 million to the Syria Free Army and other moderate rebel groups fighting in Syria. He said Obama would likely argue he already has the necessary authority to go after ISIS based on previous authority to attack al Qaeda in the Middle East. “That’s the vote I would expect, yes,” he said about the spending bill.
Members of both parties have already introduced legislation approving military action against ISIS. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), for example, on Monday introduced a bill formally granting Obama authority to take military action in both Iraq and Syria. The authorization to strike Syria is important because, while the president can currently say attacks on ISIS in Iraq are meant to defend American interests there, that justification grows thin when stretched to cover Syria.
“If you want to kill the snake, you’ve got to cut off its head,” the Florida Democrat said.
The bill limits Obama’s authority to attack ISIS to three years and prohibits him from deploying large numbers of troops in combat areas, but doesn’t prohibit special commando raids or deployment of ground spotters for air attacks.
“It gives a flexibility that the president needs at this point,” Nelson told MSNBC. “I think the president has the authority under the Constitution to protect Americans in our country to go ahead and start the strikes. But this is not going to be a short-term deal; it’s going to be a long-term deal. So the Congress ought to weigh in, and something like the resolution I’m offering will put all these legal eagles to rest.”
He also said he doubted lawmakers would consider his measure before adjourning again in a week or two.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), introduced a more expansive bill that, in effect, takes Congress out of the equation on international terrorism. The bill, just two pages long, essentially gives the president blanket authority to use force against terrorist groups wherever he finds them.
Before the White House meeting Tuesday, party leaders were disinclined to discuss voting on a resolution to attack ISIS. A GOP House leadership aide told The Hill that no action is likely until the president makes his statement Wednesday night at 9 p.m. “How he lays out his strategy will determine how our guys and members of Congress respond,” the aide said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and other Democrats were also wary of committing to a vote until the leadership had met with the president and Obama delivered his speech. “I’m inclined to not rush into anything,” Reid told reporters after meeting with his members. “I don’t know how others feel, but I want facts before” reaching any conclusions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was alone among top leaders in calling specifically for congressional authorization of military action. “The president should be seeking congressional approval period, for whatever he decides to do because that’s the way you hear from those of us who represent the rest of the country,” he said in a press briefing. There is “pretty broad bipartisan support” for taking strong action against ISIS after the beheading of two American journalists, he said, and it would be in Obama’s “best interest” to seek authorization.
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