Obama's Islamic State speech: 3 things for Congress to consider

Many Republicans support the president's plan to 'destroy' the Islamic State – but they say it doesn’t go far enough. And they have questions about it, particularly about how it would work in Syria, and what happens if the plan fails.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio pauses during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2014, to respond to the proposals from President Obama about confronting the new wave of terrorism. On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Republicans and Democrats in Congress voiced strong pre-election support Thursday for President Obama's call for new authority to combat Islamic State militants in the heart of the Middle East.

Now that President Obama has laid out his strategy to degrade and destroy the terrorist Islamic State, it’s Congress’s turn to weigh in.

Actually, members have been voicing their views all week, but now they’ve got something concrete to mull over – a long-term counter-terrorism campaign that calls for airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, help for Iraqi and Syrian opposition forces who will do the fighting, intelligence and diplomatic efforts, and burden-sharing through international coalitions.

What role does Congress play in this? Here are three ways in which Congress is involved in this debate:

1. It must decide whether to aid Syrian rebels.

The president has asked Congress to approve training and arming Syrian rebels to help fight the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. This is not the same as authorizing use of military force (see No. 3), but is necessary if the opposition Free Syrian Army is to have any hope of defeating IS, say the administration and many lawmakers.

Actually, various Senate committees have already passed measures to aid the Syrian opposition, but they went nowhere in the absence of a strong push from the White House. Now the IS threat is too grave to ignore. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada says the president’s request requires “immediate congressional action,” and it looks like most Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill agree. 

“We ought to give the president what he’s asking for,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio on Thursday. But the speaker said the House has not yet decided how to proceed.

Some members would like to attach the authorization language to a temporary spending bill (known as a continuing resolution) that will keep the government funded into December. Congress is expected to pass that bill before it closes up shop to campaign for the November elections in just over a week. Others want a separate vote on authorization because of the seriousness of the issue.

2. Congress acts as a sounding board – and is sounding off.

Most Democrats support the president’s plan (some notable exceptions are Senators Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Udall of Colorado, who are in tough races and are distancing themselves from the president).

Many Republicans, too, support the plan – but they say it doesn’t go far enough. And they have questions about it, particularly about how it would work in Syria, which is beset by a civil war, and what happens if the plan fails.

I support the president’s plan to train and equip Iraqi security forces and the Syrian opposition,” Mr. Boehner told reporters at his weekly press conference. “But I remain concerned that those measures could take years to fully implement at a time when ISIL’s momentum and territorial gains must be halted and reversed immediately.”

At a Monitor breakfast, Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio, said he fears the president has underestimated the strength of IS, by erroneously lumping in this new offensive campaign with US counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen and Somalia.

The IS has howitzers, tanks, and ample money, said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina on the Senate floor Thursday.

“We’re going to need thousands of troops over time on the ground holding the hands of the Arab armies that are going to do the fighting along with the Syrians to make sure we win," Senator Graham said.

Mr. Obama announced he’s sending 475 military advisers to Iraq, bringing the total to more than 1,600 – but he insisted he will not send combat troops.

An angry Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona urged the president to tell the American people the truth – that much more is needed, including special forces on the ground, and that these Americans will come in harm’s way. 

Meanwhile, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky says now is the time to beef up America’s military.

3. According to the Constitution, Congress has the power to declare war.

Washington walks into a sand storm whenever the topic of war authorization comes up. 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.

In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution to bring clarity to the congressional role, but the resolution has itself become a source of confusion, with presidents and lawmakers interpreting it differently over the decades.

Obama maintains that he already has the authority to implement his plan, and key members of both parties in both chambers agree. Experts find support for that position in the 2001 congressional authorization to use force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and in Congress's 2002 approval to use force in Iraq.

But other Democrats and Republicans disagree and want Congress to debate and vote on authorization – if not least to bring the country to a unified position on this new chapter.

Traditionally, it is the president who asks for such authority. Absent that, some lawmakers are taking the initiative, but so far the House and Senate leadership has shown little interest – at least not in advance of the election.

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