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After Syrian Vote, War Debate Will Follow Congress Back Home

After Syrian Vote, War Debate Will Follow Congress Back Home

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 19, 2014

Just a week after President Obama addressed the nation about the threat posed by Islamic State militants and asked Congress to approve arming and training Syrian rebels to fight them, lawmakers gave him what he wanted Thursday evening.

The action was quick, by this Congress’ standards, and bipartisan, featuring the formation of atypical alliances -- but not without due drama and reservations. The 78-22 tally included nine Democrats and 12 Republicans voting no (along with independent Bernie Sanders). The Senate action follows House passage on Wednesday. As part of a bill that also keeps the government running for several weeks past the end of the fiscal year, Congress will now pack up and go home. Members won’t be back until after the midterm elections -- the outcomes of which could change the balance of power in Congress.

Left largely unresolved, however, is the delicate issue of war. Congress’ authorization of aid to the vetted Syrian opposition expires on Dec. 11 along with the budget resolution, which means lawmakers must revisit the issue again. Senate Democratic leaders said the chamber would vote during the lame duck session on authorizing military force in Syria, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee drafting the language. It’s not yet clear whether it will be rolled into the Defense Authorization bill, which Congress must approve in the same session.

 “I think it’s time for Congress to step in on thoughtful conversation about our constitutional responsibility,” said Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat. Referencing the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Durbin said “the notion that this president or any president could use that forever and ever, amen, is troubling.”

But there are varying opinions within the party about the parameters of future authorizations, opinions influenced by the lingering effects of the Iraq War and, perhaps more significantly, the midterms.

“The outcome of the election will clearly make a difference in terms of what happens in the lame duck,” said Republican Sen. John Hoeven, referring to a host of issues, including war legislation.

If Republicans win control of the upper chamber, the debate could be kicked to the next Congress, when the GOP will have more influence.

“We don’t think the president has the authority to do what’s necessary to be successful in combating ISIL,” said John Cornyn, the GOP’s second in command in the Senate. But, he noted, his party’s leaders want to see a “serious strategy” from the president before they make their next moves. “Then there is going to be a consensus from members in the Senate for authorization.”

(In a four-minute speech immediately after the Senate vote, President Obama thanked Congress for "strong bipartisanship" that he said sends a message to "barbaric" ISIL terrorists that Americans, to be joined by France in airstrikes in Iraq, stand united. He also repeated his assertion that the presence of more than 1,600 U.S. military personnel in Iraq is not a violation of what he called a "key principle of our strategy" that American forces in Iraq “do not and will not have a combat mission.")

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging Congress to stay in town now to debate and vote on approving further military action, citing constitutional and constituent concerns. (The administration has maintained that it already has the authority it needs for airstrikes inside Syria.)

Several senators called for separating the Syrian aid language from the budget measure to have a straight up-or-down vote on each, which would have more accurately reflected members’ views. But doing so also figured to jeopardize some lawmakers up for re-election in November.

Opposition to Syrian aid came from both sides of the aisle, and included a mix of anti-interventionists as well as veterans, who expressed concerns about effectiveness, history, and duration of the conflict.  

“We have been at war in that part of the world for the past 13 years. If money and military might could have made a difference, it would have by now,” Democrat Joe Manchin said on the Senate floor. “Why do we think that training Syrian rebels would turn out any differently?”

“Intervention created the chaos,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican with 2016 presidential ambitions. “Sending arms to so-called moderate Islamic rebels in Syria is a fool's errand and will only make [ISIL] stronger.”

Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell both supported Thursday’s vote, as did most of their respective leadership teams. John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi backed the House measure, which passed on a 273-156 vote.

But beyond this first partial measure, Congress still needs to grapple with the larger implications of military action. Pelosi said the president already has the authority he needs to move ahead with the rest of the ISIL plan, but the House minority leader was firm in saying she and her caucus would not support putting U.S. combat troops “in any of these engagements.”

On Thursday, Boehner questioned Obama’s professed commitment to destroying the terrorist group. “I am still waiting to see the bigger picture of how we win this war, how we destroy ISIL,” he said after a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. “I’ve not seen it yet.”

The October recess will likely play a role in members’ appetite for the debate post-election as lawmakers will gauge constituent interest and concern while campaigning.

For now, there appears to be growing interest for a debate on Capitol Hill. It’s just not clear how extensive it will be.

“What we learned in Iraq was that presidents were capable of misleading members of Congress into a war. … What we learned in Afghanistan was a hot pursuit of terrorists in 9/11 turned into the longest war in American history,” Durbin told reporters. “I want us to have a lot more specificity and I want us to be an active part of the conversation.”

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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