Obama, Congress, ISIL: Where Things Stand & What's Next

By Alexis Simendinger & Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 15, 2014

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Based on the goals Obama laid out, the answer is “years.” The administration says his successor will inherit the war against ISIL.

 What has Obama asked Congress to do?

The White House asked lawmakers to insert language into a must-pass spending bill that would authorize the Department of Defense to equip and train vetted Syrian rebels to fight ISIL. The president has asked for $500 million for this effort.

By and large, members of Congress, with some exceptions, support the aim of aiding the moderate opposition fighters. But it’s not yet clear how, exactly, they will handle the request.

Many Republicans and some Democrats are calling for the aid language to be stripped from the continuing resolution -- a spending bill to keep the government operating past Sept. 30 -- and voted on separately. Lawmakers had carefully crafted the CR to gain enough votes to pass and avoid repeating the drama and disaster of last year’s partial shutdown. The White House’s last-minute request for an attachment threatened to throw those delicate negotiations off course, and irked House committee chairmen who have been asking the White House about the rebel aid for months.

Still, congressional authorization is likely. After gauging the temperature of his conference, House Speaker John Boehner said last week it is “important to give the president what he has asked for.”

An up-or-down vote on the president’s request could divide Democrats, with many members, and even some leaders, representing war-weary districts and concerned about how aiding Syrian rebels will fall on the ears of constituents. And attaching the proposal to the budget measure may drive away Republicans who oppose the spending levels and other attachments -- including the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank -- in the bill.

Progressives also want a stand-alone vote. “After more than a decade of war, the American people deserve straight up-or-down votes on the president's plan in Iraq and Syria, not parliamentary games designed to shut down debate, force the hands of our representatives in Washington, and obscure the very serious undertaking on which they're voting,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America.

Aside from the aid package, larger questions remain about a conflict that will outlive this Congress and this administration. While Boehner approved the arming of vetted opposition fighters, he was skeptical about the efficacy of the president’s overall strategy to eliminate the terrorist group. Republican members may want to put their own mark on approval legislation.

Hearings and briefings on this issue will dominate Congress’ time this week. Members are returning to Washington on Monday -- a day earlier than scheduled, forfeiting precious time on the campaign trail -- to begin processing the administration’s request. A vote could come this week.

Lawmakers are also raising questions about war powers and whether they should debate the issue of military force. The president has said he does not need authority to launch airstrikes against Syria. But some members want to weigh in on that action, especially if constituents have concerns about the prospect of another war.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday said it is important for Congress to vote on authorizing military strikes against Syria, where he said the “head of the snake” is located. McCaul said that while Congress and the public don’t want U.S. troops on the ground there, it is “unwise” for the administration to rule out combat help offered from foreign allies.

Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer suggested a two-step approach by Congress, with a vote this week on arming the rebels, and a vote by the end of the year on military action.

Many of his members “believe that we ought to have a vote before the end of the year on the authority of the use of military force, so the Congress can speak and represent the views of the American people in that regard,” he told C-SPAN over the weekend.


Does the president need authorization to arm the rebels?

The administration has already been training Syrian rebels for over a year. The authorization from Congress would move that program from the CIA to the Department of Defense, making it an overt operation. But there are varying opinions among lawmakers over whether the president has the constitutional authority to go it alone or if he needs the approval of Congress. There are questions about why the president is asking for legal authority on the opposition aid, but not for lethal military strikes. The administration has also said the funds for the operations are already available for the DOD and that a vote by Congress isn’t required to access the money.

Many lawmakers have expressed concern about returning to their districts for the October recess without a vote on counter-terrorism efforts, especially with high public interest. Republican Sen. John McCain said that while the president has authority to proceed with the rebel operation and airstrikes inside Syria, a vote from Congress would be a sign of national unity. “In order to get the support of Congress and the American people, I think it’s in his interest to come to Congress and ask for the authorization,” he told reporters last week.

Others disagree that the president has the authority on his own and can sidestep Congress.

“I’ve never believed the president should be able to conduct a large-scale, foreign military group without congressional authorization,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “If we are going to unilaterally scale up the arming and support of the Syrian rebels without any buy-in from regional players, then it’s a tough sell for me. I’m willing to consider engagement inside Syria if we have near unanimity amongst the regional players of that abroad strategy.” Others, like Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, agree with this sentiment.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the prominent defense hawks on Capitol Hill, believes the president has constitutional authority for arming the rebels and for airstrikes. But the White House’s overall approach to combating ISIL is “delusional,” he said, adding that ruling out U.S. combat troops in Syria is a “fantasy.”

"There's no way in hell you can form an army on the ground to go into Syria to destroy ISIL without a substantial American component," Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.” "This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home."


What’s the public’s reaction to the Islamic State terrorists and America’s intervention in Iraq and Syria?

Recent surveys show that the public is actively engaged with this issue, especially since the brutal beadings of two Americans at the hands of ISIL members. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found increased support since April for American intervention abroad. (Just 32 percent of voters approved of the president’s job performance on foreign policy, however.)

The president is also losing support among women -- a key constituency that twice helped to elect him. An ABC News-Washington Post poll found that just 37 percent of women approved of the job he is doing on foreign affairs -- an all-time low.

How do politics play in?

Given high public interest and concern, foreign policy could become an issue on the campaign trail. Republicans have already run ads hitting their Democratic opponents on the president’s foreign policy problems. GOP operatives say the situation feeds into their larger argument against the president and Democrats on competency and management.

An impending congressional vote could put vulnerable Democrats on edge. After the president’s speech last week, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said he would not support the arming of Syrian rebels. Colorado Sen. Mark Udall said he “will not give this president -- or any other president -- a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq. As we have seen in the past, American boots on the ground cannot stamp out an extreme ideology and the Iraqis must take responsibility for defending their own people.” (Udall had to apologize for remarks made during a recent debate with Republican challenger Cory Gardener in which he said the two murdered journalists would agree with his cautious approach to dealing with ISIL.)

Last week, former Vice President Dick Cheney visited Capitol Hill to advise House Republicans on foreign policy and dealing with ISIL. Democrats took the opportunity to hammer the other side. “There are people here in Congress who are taking advice from Dick Cheney. I think they better be very careful with the advice that they take from Dick Cheney,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor. “Dick Cheney is more responsible than anyone else for the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the country: the invasion of Iraq."

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