Obama Wants OK from Congress on ISIS After All
Policy + Politics

Obama Wants OK from Congress on ISIS After All

President Obama may have told congressional leaders Tuesday evening that he doesn’t need special authority from Congress to step up airstrikes against ISIS in Northern Iraq and parts of Syria – but now he’s seeking last-minute congressional approval to arm and train the moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting the Islamic militants.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden began calling members of Congress on Wednesday seeking support for the new authority as part of a continuing resolution to keep the government operating through early December. One of the president’s calls was to Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, who is drafting the CR.

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Rogers initially bridled at the request saying it was coming too late. He said the authority ought to be considered separately from the massive stopgap-spending bill needed to avoid another government shutdown after the current fiscal year expires Sept. 30.

However, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said this afternoon that floor action on the bill would be postponed until next week to give the leadership time to consider the administration’s request. With lawmakers trying to finish up and return home to resume campaigning, the House had scheduled a vote on the CR on Thursday before receiving Obama’s request.

Obama will deliver a nationally televised address tonight seeking Americans’ support for his joint plans with NATO allies for “degrading and ultimately destroying” ISIS.  

New polls show the public is very concerned about ISIS – which has captured wide swaths of northern Iraq and Syria and beheaded two American journalists – and favors strong action against them. Obama is prepared to use military airstrikes in Syria as well as Iraq. But the president told Democratic and Republican congressional leaders during a White House meeting yesterday that he does not believe he needs formal congressional approval to do that.

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Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said recently that Congress has two options for responding to ISIS: Either approve Obama’s request for $500 million in supplemental funding to train and arm the Free Syrian Army, and use the measure to grant expanded authority, or debate and vote on legislation to authorize the administration’s expanded role.

While the first option would not formally authorize the expanded bombing of ISIS strongholds, it nonetheless would signal congressional unity around the president’s critical military endeavor.

A senior administration official told The Hill today that the White House “wants lawmakers to pass the authorization before the end of the current work period and believes the continuing resolution … is the best vehicle to get that done.”

Yet the eleventh-hour request has encountered resistance from some House Republicans because it complicates efforts to enact the government funding measure. Rogers told reporters he thought the president’s request should be voted on separately.

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"They've known about this problem for over a year," Rogers said, according to The Hill. "It's a complicated, big-time change in policy… Let us go ahead with a CR to keep the government going."

Jennifer Hing, the appropriations committee communications director, said in an interview that while Rogers would prefer a relatively “clean” CR, “he is open to considering the issue.”

However, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate offered support for the authority, as did a handful of Senate Republicans. “The other option is to do nothing, and by doing nothing for the last few years, we've seen 200,000 Syrians dead and millions displaced in refugee camps,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Hill. “It's not without its risks, but we need to try to find some non-ISIS fighters, and train them and arm them so they can help us defeat ISIS.”

Rogers yesterday unveiled a draft of the stopgap spending measure that would continue funding government programs and services within the current annual spending cap of $1.012 trillion until Dec. 11. Congress eventually will have to approve permanent spending measures for the new fiscal 2015.

Although Rogers says he wants a “clean” CR, the bill as written includes 10 amendments – including provisions to extend the operating authority for the Export-Import Bank through June 30, 2015 and to extend the Internet Tax Freedom Act through early December.

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