Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., finish a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 27, 2014.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., finish a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 27, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Islamic State Unites Congress, But Lawmakers Diverge on the Way Forward

The Islamic State may have provoked rare unity in a dysfunctional Congress -- but lawmakers’ support for Obama’s strategy comes with crucial caveats. By Molly O’Toole

Many members of Congress gave President Barack Obama their support Wednesday night shortly after a prime-time speech outlining his strategy to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State, in both Iraq and Syria. But their “I told you so”’s came from very different political viewpoints on the role of U.S. military force in the world.

For weeks, the more hawkish lawmakers of the Republican party have been on the sidelines demanding more military action in Iraq and Syria, criticizing the president for what they claim is indecisiveness and a lack of strategy. Democrats have largely adopted a wait-and-see approach, not wanting to break ranks with the president while acknowledging the seriousness of the Islamic State threat -- and both parties are acutely aware of the political vulnerability presented by a war vote. 

“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy,” Obama said. “That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq … if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

“My administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together,” Obama continued. “So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.”

The White House has been clear on its position that it does not need congressional authorization for the current operation, or any expanded action in Iraq and Syria. But the administration has also acknowledged -- as Obama reiterated in his speech Wednesday night -- that it does need Congress to authorize $500 million in funding to train and equip Syrian moderate opposition, a key aspect of the president’s plan requested months ago.

Yet members of Congress are divided on whether or not the president needs their broader permission. Following a five-week recess, staunch allies of the president and conservatives alike both said this week that Obama should take decisive action, but also added that any strategy would benefit -- at least symbolically -- from their support.

“Now that a strategy has been outlined, it is critical that Congress and the American people come together in solidarity to support the president and our armed forces,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said following Obama’s address. “On such an important matter of national security, we must show ISIL we have the political will, the military might and the strength of a united country.

“In my 14 years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have not seen a terrorist organization with the brutality and capabilities of ISIL,” she said. “Anyone with a sense of humanity cannot be passive in the face of this organization … ISIL is pure evil, and the time has come to end its reign of terror.”

House Armed Services Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., agreed. “This is an extraordinarily difficult and complex problem that requires a thoughtful and strategic approach … There is a formula for success and ISIL can be defeated. It is time for Americans to come together and support the president as he ramps up our efforts to defeat this menace.”

House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., expressed support for the president while saying his plan did not go far enough. 

“The threat these terrorists pose to the United States and our allies cannot be tolerated, and I support the president taking military action in Iraq and Syria to combat this organization,” McCarthy said. “But more must be done … A president who has made ending the war on terrorism the central focus of his foreign policy must now make winning it a priority. I stand ready to work with the president to destroy ISIL, win this fight, and ensure America’s continued safety.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a senior member of the Armed Services committee, similarly hit the president for “downplaying” the threat. “For months, the president has downplayed this threat and has sent mixed messages to our enemies and our allies about our resolve,” he said. “I look forward to the plan outlined by the president tonight finally replacing the administration’s past policies of half-measures and disengagement. I hope the president will match his tough talk with action.”

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also echoed these sentiments. “I appreciate that the president has finally said clearly that we must destroy ISIS and that he outlined some important steps toward that goal – including expanded airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which I have previously called for,” she said. “We have heard tough talk before from the president, and I hope this time he takes decisive actions to match his words.”

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said, “I believe that many of the elements [Obama] advocated are important and I support them. However, they are not enough to achieve his own stated goal of defeating ISIL.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has consistently said the president does not need Congress’s authority -- while simultaneously laying the blame for the current security crisis on the White House doorstep. “[Obama’s speech] shows me that president doesn’t have a grasp for how serious the threat of ISIS is,” McCain said, while noting the president’s eagerness to withdraw from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq opened up a power vacuum for the Islamic State.

But several members of both parties called for caution on recommitting U.S. troops to a prolonged military engagement, even if primarily from the air. They questioned whether the president has the authority to use military force, in particular as he has now expressed his intent to conduct air strikes in Syria. Far from having the support of the government, the U.S. has supported the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The facts are clear. We are no longer talking about limited strikes to prevent genocide and protect U.S. personnel. We are talking about sustained bombing and the use of military force,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said. Lee is the only member of the House to vote against the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a sweeping measure used as the legal justification for virtually every instance of U.S. counterterrorism across the globe for the past 13 years. Despite repeating the president has the authority to for the current operation under his Article 2 powers endowed by the Constitution, senior administration officials also said on a background call ahead of the president’s speech Wednesday night that he is additionally relying on the 2001 AUMF. They argued that the Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and is thus covered under the Bush-era law.

“The threat from ISIS is serious,” Lee said. “But before we take any further military action, Congress must debate the threats to our national security, the risks to American servicemen and women and the financial costs of waging another war in the Middle East. As the president said ‘we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together,’ that is why I believe the president’s plan requires a thoughtful debate and vote by Congress.”

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., pushed back against the Republican line by praising Obama’s “leadership” -- at the same time as he said his committee is drafting a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

“It is my view that the president possesses existing authorities to strike ISIL in the short term, but that a prolonged military campaign will require a congressionally-approved Authorization for Use of Military Force,” Menendez said.

This measure would join nearly a dozen similar pieces of legislation introduced both before and after the August recess.  

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees and one of Obama’s earliest supporters as a candidate, said he supports Obama’s direction, at the same time as he diverged with him on his authority to move forward with U.S. military action without congressional approval.

“I support the president’s goal and believe he will receive broad support from the American people,” Kaine said in a statement. “I disagree with the president's assertion that he has all necessary legal authority to wage an offensive war against ISIL without congressional approval …  I look forward to working with my colleagues to craft a narrow authorization for that mission. I believe Congress owes it to our service members to do our collective job to reach a consensus in support of this military mission.”