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Why Congress is punting on authorizing war against Islamic State (+video)

Congress will vote Wednesday on whether to train anti-Islamic State in fighters in Syria and Iraq, but not on the bigger issue of whether to authorize US force. That comes after November's elections.

The US House is voting Wednesday on authorizing the Obama administration to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State jihadis. But the big vote – whether to authorize American use of armed force in the fight – has been punted past the midterm elections.

It could come in the lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 vote or even early next year, when the new Congress meets.

The overwhelming reason for the delay – which angers lawmakers in both parties who believe it’s their constitutional duty and right to vote now on the use of force – is political expediency.

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“People want to get out of here and go home to campaign,” says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Florida, who recently introduced use-of-force legislation. They’re also nervous about taking such a consequential vote so close to Election Day – a stance that Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona simply calls “cowardice” and that his hawkish friend, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, derides as a “cop-out.”

But other factors are also at work.

Some lawmakers say they don’t have enough information to have an informed debate now.

“We need to know what the White House plan is. Which we do not know now,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R) of Kentucky, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to reporters earlier this week. Chairman Rogers is steering the temporary spending bill to which the amendment on Syria will be attached if it’s approved as expected.

What, not know the plan? After a presidential speech, private briefings for all lawmakers, and public hearings featuring administration officials?

Yes, despite the information download, lawmakers still have plenty of questions. That's why the Syria amendment requires the Pentagon to report to Congress on how the training and arming of the rebels will actually work – how the rebels will be vetted and what measures will be in place to prevent equipment from migrating over to the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL.

And in just a few days, information has changed. While President Obama insists no ground combat forces will be used, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told senators Tuesday there could be scenarios where US forces might have to be involved in ground combat. Meanwhile, Iraq’s prime minister told the Associated Press that ground troops from the US or other foreign forces in Iraq are “out of the question.”

Mr. Obama has certainly made it easy for Congress to duck the bigger question of war authority. President George W. Bush asked Congress for authority to use force, but Obama did not, claiming he already has approval.

Many on the Hill believe this is a new chapter. Indeed, the politics and the circumstances differ substantially from the authority granted in 2001 and again in the fall of 2002, before the invasion of Iraq the next year (and, interestingly, just a few weeks before the 2002 midterm election).

In those earlier times, the 9/11 attack on the US homeland was still fresh in the minds of lawmakers, and national security was the overriding issue in America. Now, a substantial majority of Americans support airstrikes on the Islamic State. But only 12 percent of voters say international conflicts are their top concern, according to last week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll.

At the same time, lawmakers have more than a decade of US military engagement in the Middle East and Afghanistan to look back on – they are wiser about both the threats and the complexities of dealing with those threats.

Traditional labels of dovish Democrats and hawkish Republicans are a lot harder to apply. 

On Tuesday, for instance, Rep. Chris Gibson (R) of New York, who served in Iraq as a US Army officer, said he opposed training and arming Syrian rebels. The Islamic State – “this evil organization has to be defeated,” he said on the House floor during debate on the Syria amendment. “The question is how?”

Speaking for the amendment, his Democratic colleague from New York, Eliot Engel, admitted that there are only “bad choices” left in Syria and Iraq. “But the worse choice would be to do nothing,” leaving the IS to plot and plan, he said. 

Their debate is a preview of what’s to come when Congress eventually takes up an authorization vote. Whenever that will be.

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