President Barack Obama’s prime-time ISIS war speech Wednesday night came as congressional leaders — and a restive rank and file — continued to wrestle with what role, if any, they should play.
While the president asserted to congressional leaders he didn't need their authorization to take on and destroy the Islamic State group, Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and administration officials were also personally calling members of Congress ahead of the speech to explicitly authorize arming and training Syrian rebels, known as Title 10 authority, as part of the unrelated continuing resolution needed to fund the government past Sept. 30.
The push would put Congress on record for a significant piece of the president's strategy — but accountability isn't necessarily what lawmakers want to own heading into the midterm elections. An undercurrent of the tense debate is that the four congressional leaders have been singing different tunes, although they all ostensibly support taking on ISIS, also known as ISIL.
Republicans announced plans late Wednesday to punt the CR another week to give members more time to review the president's request.
Each party leader faces different pressures on the matter.
The Speaker House Republicans, led by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, have been drifting into ever-more-hawkish territory following a surge in pro-war public sentiment after the beheadings of two American journalists and a Tuesday meeting with former Vice President Dick Cheney. It’s a marked change from a year ago, when Boehner backed Obama’s call for authorization to strike Syria, but his rank and file balked and the party's libertarian wing appeared ascendant.
Boehner was set to face his flock Thursday morning for a special conference meeting on the CR. He'll now have more days to cobble together the votes amid a combustible mix of war politics and conservative angst over setting up a lame-duck session.
The speaker himself is a hawk, but has been cautious about taking votes that might upset his party’s standing in November, with House Republicans seen as certain to maintain, and perhaps expand, their majority. Boehner's office has said that he supports training and equipping the Syrian opposition.
The Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has his own electoral worries, with his Democratic majority in danger. He blasted some Republicans Wednesday for pounding the war drums, even as he backed the president’s call to “destroy” ISIS. Reid distinguished between using air power and covert operations to take out the Islamic State group with an invasion using U.S. ground troops, and took a shot at Cheney.
Reid blessed the idea that the president can act without Congress , but said lawmakers should back Obama's plan for arming the rebels.
The Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky also has a lot at stake, given his own tight re-election race and hopes Republicans can reclaim the Senate majority. He has been a bit more assertive than the other leaders in calling for the president to lay out the case for congressional authorization. McConnell has repeatedly blamed the president for being too slow to act.
The House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who seized the speaker’s gavel following the 2006 midterms in part due to opposition to the Iraq war, faces a split Democratic caucus of hawks and doves. Pelosi has stressed action must be taken soon, and said this week, "I do support the training of moderate Syrians in order to fight ISIS out of country."
The Rank and File Lawmakers who spoke to CQ Roll Call indicated the sentiment is: something must be done. But there is no clear consensus on exactly what.
One of Obama’s closest allies, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, has been saying for weeks the president needs to seek congressional authorization, and believes the public supports taking ISIS on.
“If you’ve got the American public behind you then you ought to be able to get Congress strongly behind you," he told CQ Roll Call. “If this was just going to last a week, that would be one thing, but it may last some time. And to have everybody on board, I think, would be a very good thing."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., strongly backs the Title 10 authority, and says a broader authorization to use force could come later. “From my perspective, to the extent that an authorization is necessary if we are going to have a prolonged effort against ISIS, we need to get it right, not just simply do it fast," Menendez said. "We should learn from the 9/11 authorization; 13 years later that authorization is still being used far beyond [Osama] bin Laden and al-Qaida."
As Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas put it, Congress needs "more answers" before putting ISIS language in the CR.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. said he sees little appetite for boots on the ground, but noted, "I think there's a strong sentiment that we can't sit back and do nothing." Hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been quoted this week worrying that an authorization vote that failed to pass would be the worst possible outcome. But Graham said Wednesday he backs voting to give Obama authority to arm the Syrian rebels, something he has long supported.
"He's got a trust and competency deficit he's built up over time, but we're all in this together," he said.
"I think it's hard for any member of Congress to sign on to a strategy you don't quite understand and a guy you don't trust. He has the authority, in my view, to do what he's contemplating doing," he said. "The reason I want Congress to deal with the Title 10 issue and the funding for the Free Syrian Army [is because] I think that's an appropriate buy-in by us. I think we should have the courage of our convictions."
Emma Dumain, Humberto Sanchez and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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