On Dec. 8, the House passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement Act of 2015 by an overwhelming vote of 407-19. (Republicans were initially reluctant to go after the K-1 “fiancee visa” that was given to Malik.)
Though authorities haven’t found the attackers used encryption, Comey noted on Dec. 9 they still can’t access 109 encrypted messages a Texas shooter exchanged with an “overseas terrorist,” because the May attack occurred after certain NSA powers lapsed. But he added, “To find those that are radicalizing and being inspired by these terrorist groups is a very, very hard thing."
That hasn’t stopped 2016 candidates. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. has been hitting Cruz’s vote to end the NSA’s bulk metadata program as “isolationist," a strategy he employed extensively in the debate, though he had to defend his own position on surveillance and encryption against Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
At first, it seemed Trump’s Dec. 7 call for a Muslim ban had gone too far. House Speaker Ryan said: "This is not conservatism.” Majority Leader McConnell called it "completely inconsistent with American values.” McCain told Defense One it was “foolishness,” noting Muslim allies. Yet all three said they’d support Trump if he were nominee.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Trump’s rhetoric was “contrary” to national security. Defense Secretary Carter said lawmakers are stymying the counterterrorism effort. He encouraged Congress to pass an “omnibus” spending bill, calling continuing resolutions a “straitjacket.”
On Dec. 10, Congress passed a continuing resolution to Dec. 16. Early Wednesday morning leadership posted the $1.1 trillion deal, which Ryan said the House will vote on on Friday, though it also passed another short-term extension until Dec. 22.
On Friday, Dec. 18, in spite of several last-minute, vague threats to try and hold up the bill over security measures, the House easily passed the omnibus with a vote of 316 to 113, followed by the Senate 65 to 33, and the president signed it into law.
Meanwhile, the White House has been ratcheting up its public relations campaign, beginning on Dec. 8 to provide regular NSC “Counter-ISIL Round-Ups,” and on Dec. 11 launching a new website on the counter-ISIS fight. Obama's Oval Office address on Dec. 6, urging Americans to unite in the wake of San Bernardino, was a rare step. And he's continued to ramp up his public reassurance; on Monday he convened a national security meeting at the Pentagon, on Thursday he’ll visit the National Counterterrorism Center, and on Friday Dec. 18, en route to Hawaii, he'll stop off in San Bernardino to meet the families of the victims.
“As we squeeze its heart, we’ll make it harder for ISIL to pump its terror and propaganda to the rest of the world,” Obama said Monday.
The administration is also calling out congressional inaction on “common-sense” security steps, such as keeping those on terror watchlists from buying military-style weapons and passing an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against ISIS.
As House Democrats repeatedly fail to force a gun control vote, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., who was inadvertently put on a no-fly list, summed up opposition: “The best defense against an armed terrorist is an armed American.”
Aides said the handful of competing immigration measures, from refugees to visa waivers, were also a live part of the omnibus negotiations, but Ryan told his caucus Monday night language to tighten restrictions on Iraqi and Syrian refugees didn’t make it in. More than half the Democrats who backed the House refugee “pause” have reversed.
But provisions of bipartisan-backed House and Senate bills proposing visa waiver changes were included in the omnibus — a move both sides tout to bolster their security bonafides, but also a much-needed victory for the administration.
And yet as Republicans and Democrats on the campaign, in Congress and at 1600 Pennsylvania look to score political points on national security, many are abdicating responsibility in the race to 2016.
Ryan reiterated Tuesday that Republicans want the White House give them a plan, but don’t count an AUMF. The White House submitted its AUMF 10 months ago, and some dozen different versions have been introduced, but Congress hasn’t acted.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told Defense One last week, “Believe it or not, you can solve all of that by having a strategy in Syria to defeat ISIS. And if you don’t do that, then you probably can’t beef up visa waiver and refugee policy enough.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Dec. 9 an AUMF could be a forcing mechanism — for Republicans.
The White House says lawmakers are dodging, but it doesn’t need new authority. “I'm not a lawyer,” Carter said that same day while testifying on the Hill, “but I'm told, and I'm glad, otherwise it would be a problem, we have the legal authority to do what we want to do.”