Without presenting new facts or incentives, President Obama is asking Congress for a set of anti-terror tools that they have already rejected—a sure recipe for inaction in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks.
The president gave a rare Oval Office address in primetime Sunday evening, seeking to calm American nerves and propose a way forward in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. But, with the exception of reexamining visa waivers for foreigners, the proposals have been dismissed by Congress—one measure involving guns and the no-fly list was rejected just last week.
Still, Obama appeared undeterred.
“To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no- fly list is able to buy a gun. What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon?” the president said. “This is a matter of national security,”
Last week Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein led the charge in the Senate to pass a bill that would prohibit firearms purchases by those who have been placed on a national no-fly list due to suspicions of ties to terrorism.
But the measure failed in the Senate, 45-54, leading Feinstein to declare that “Congress is a hostage to the gun lobby… If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to buy a gun. Unfortunately that commonsense idea failed to attract enough votes to pass the Senate.”
But the right was having nothing of it. Sen. Tom Cotton, a hawkish Republican, said that “the President is dangerously detached from reality, lecturing us about political correctness and ineffective gun control.”
Obama also called for new measures restricting the sale of “powerful assault weapons,” a tall order for a Congress which denied restricting the sale of firearms to suspected terrorists, and was unable to pass gun control legislation after the slaughter of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“[T]he President should resist using terrorist attacks to try to take away the rights of law-abiding Americans. Millions of Americans have chosen to protect themselves and their families by purchasing a firearm,” said Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, in a prebuttal to the president’s speech.
The president also called for lawmakers to pass a war authorization, to provide direct legal authority for America to fight the so-called Islamic State.
“If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists,” Obama said. “[I]t’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight.”
But the president is as aware as anyone else that Congress is loathe to vote on a war authorization.
Although the White House sent a draft version of an AUMF—the authorization for the use of military force—to Congress earlier this year, lawmakers have been largely unwilling to take a difficult, career-defining that could have political consequences.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California who is the top Democrat, agrees with the president—and has been hammering the need for an AUMF for months and months. Following the president’s speech, Schiff pledged to release a new version of the AUMF in coming days.
“I have been working on a new draft authorization to combat ISIS and Al Qaeda that I plan to present in the coming days,” Schiff said Sunday night, calling a failure to pass authorization an “abdication of responsibility.”
But despite the calls of politicians on the left and on the right, the AUMF issue has gone largely unaddressed. And although the Paris terrorist attacks last month brought renewed calls for the measure to be brought up, these calls have fallen largely on deaf ears.
The president did, however, mention one initiative that Congress is in fact likely to address: he referred to a bipartisan effort to review the process by which some foreigners can enter the United States without a visa.
“American families should have confidence that our leaders are working together to address this threat. That’s why this week the House will vote on a bipartisan bill to update our visa waiver program to reduce the risk of an extremist entering the country from abroad. This legislation builds on a recent bipartisan vote to strengthen the certification requirements in our refugee program,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said after the president’s speech Sunday night.
But even as he released that statement, Ryan tweeted out his dismay about the speech—a hint about how the Republican-controlled Congress’ viewed the proposal.
“This was disappointing,” the speaker wrote. “No new plan, just a half-hearted attempt to defend and distract from a failing policy.”