Congressional leaders express 'support' for fight against Islamic State

But members of both parties disagree on whether congressional authorization is necessary for US airstrikes to continue against the Islamic State. Congressional leaders met Tuesday with President Obama and Vice President Biden.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Boehner said Tuesday that Islamic State militants pose a serious threat that must be dealt with in Iraq, Syria, or wherever they exist as he pressed President Obama to spell out the US strategy to destroy the militants.

[Updated 7:30 p.m. EDT] Congressional leaders from both parties “expressed their support for efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant Islamic State when they met Tuesday with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, according to a White House readout of the meeting.

The quartet of senior House and Senate leaders slipped from the White House without talking to the media, but a statement from House Speaker John Boehner (R) said Mr. Obama began by laying out some of the ideas he has already discussed publicly – ideas that presumably will be included in his speech to the nation Wednesday evening.

Mr. Boehner backs Obama’s plan to help regional forces – Iraqi security forces and the Syrian opposition – take on the Islamic State (IS), which is also known as ISIS or ISIL. He told the president that “ISIL is preparing to fight us” and that the United States needs to put in place a strategy commensurate with the threat it faces. The militants recently released videos showing the beheadings of two American journalists.

The president told the leaders he already has the authority he needs to take action against IS, but members of both parties and in both chambers disagree on whether congressional authorization is now necessary for Obama to continue airstrikes.

Those who favor formal congressional approval point to the War Powers Resolution of 1973, intended to prevent the president from committing the US to armed conflict without congressional consent. They see a vote on the issue as fulfilling their constitutional duty and as a means to show resolve to the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East.

“We really should have a vote. The process of a vote puts all congressmen and senators on record, and it is the process of enlisting the American people in a long and expensive conflict,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois recently told reporters.

On Monday, bills authorizing military action against IS were introduced in both the House and Senate, and by members of both parties.

Although the US public has been war-weary, it’s not so weary about this issue. Americans broadly support more airstrikes against IS, according to polls released this week by CNN/ORC and The Washington Post/ABC News.

But the pending midterm elections complicate things, as do ambiguities and uncertainties about the president’s strategy and the possible outcomes, as well as the role of Congress when it comes to the use of force abroad.

US voters go to the polls to elect members of Congress in less than two months. Some lawmakers – including the leadership of both chambers – feel no need to rush to a vote on this issue.

Such a vote is controversial among lawmakers “because they have to sign on to a military action that may or may not be successful,” says Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian. Tricky questions are involved. For instance, should the US go after IS in Syria, where a civil war is raging? And what about boots on the ground? Obama says there will be none, but do special forces count?

The US Constitution divides war powers, giving Congress the power to declare war and to fund the armed forces, while the president is the commander in chief. The War Powers Resolution, meant to clarify the congressional role, has itself been a source of confusion, with presidents and lawmakers interpreting it differently over the decades.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Obama told the leaders he would “welcome action by the Congress that would aid the overall effort and demonstrate to the world that the United States is united in defeating the threat from ISIL,” according to the White House readout. That could refer to the $5 billion he is seeking for counterterrorism missions and $500 million for aiding the Syrian opposition.

So far, no extra funds are being made available in a continuing budget resolution that’s being hammered out in the GOP-controlled House this week to fund the government through early December.

The president will address the nation on his strategy at 9 p.m. on Wednesday. Administration officials have been consulting with members of both parties and will brief all lawmakers on Thursday.

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