Strange alliances—and odd rationales—are forming over Congress’s possible vote to authorize military force against the self-declared Islamic State, or ISIS, as lawmakers stand at the ready to be briefed about militants but look unlikely to act to counter them.
The Senate is splintering over whether to defer to the president on war strategy against ISIS, with Democrats and Republicans at odds over whether President Obama needs Congress’s approval, and if not, whether he should even ask.
The disagreements are a further indication that Congress will punt a formal authorization of the use of force against ISIS in Iraq and beyond.
Indeed, congressional lawmakers, fresh from their summer recess, appear more interested in hearing about the threat ISIS poses than acting forcefully and swiftly to guide the president’s policy on the militant group.
Hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) offered the frank assessment Monday that a congressional vote could hinder presidential power at a time when Obama most needs it to counter ISIS, putting him on the same page as senior Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), both of whom indicated an interest in deferring to the president on war strategy.
The Daily Beast asked Graham if the absence of a vote reflected congressional acquiescence to the president’s will on war strategy. A vote would be nice, he said, but bringing the issue to Congress could mean all sorts of measures that blunt the president’s response.
“What if [Obama] comes here and [Congress] can’t pass it? That would be a disaster. And what if you put so many conditions on it that it makes any military operations ineffective? That’s what I worry about,” the senator said. “I think the president has an abundant amount of authority to conduct operations. It would be good to have Congress on board…if Congress doesn’t like what he’s doing, we can cut the money off.”
Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, cited hawkish former senator Joe Lieberman’s column last week in The Wall Street Journal arguing that the president has sufficient authority to act without Congress.
“[Lieberman] tends to side with the president,” Feinstein said, “which I am now beginning to side with, that [a vote] is not necessary, and I don’t think we need to do it. We’ll see what the president lays out.”
Congressional leaders are scheduled to meet with Obama on Tuesday to discuss the threat that ISIS poses. The president then is expected to make an address Wednesday laying out the White House’s strategy for what he called “going on some offense.”
Meanwhile, another strange coalition has been forming. Hawkish Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and the libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) are both calling on the president to come to Congress for support.
It would show “disregard for the Constitution and for the history of our country,” Paul said Monday, if the president didn’t ask Congress for the authority to expand the war against ISIS.
McCain took a different approach but came to the same conclusion as Paul, whom the Arizona senator has clashed with on foreign policy in the past.
“[Obama] should come to Congress,” McCain said, adding that while the president doesn’t need authorization, “it certainly is helpful to have Congress fully engaged.”
Still, all over Capitol Hill, there are signs that the nation’s lawmakers are more interested in hearing about ISIS than acting forcefully to pass legislation that would guide or support the president’s strategy.
The House Armed Services Committee members are scheduled to huddle Tuesday for a classified briefing on Iraq. Later this week, all members will receive a separate briefing on ISIS. Then, next week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on ISIS.
While senators such as Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) have worked on legislative drafts to authorize the use of force, there’s no clear plan for how Congress would make its opinion known.
Congressional lawmakers, staffers, and officials told The Daily Beast last week that the Obama administration had been opaque on its war strategy and that legislators may not even be able to bring the issue forward for a vote.
The president has said that the United States will “hunt down” the Islamic militants, as widespread outrage followed the beheading of two American journalists.
Obama told NBC’s Meet the Press that he had ruled out boots on the ground in Syria, emphasizing the role of regional partners to “degrade” ISIS’s ability to fight.
So even as the president’s critics pile on about Obama’s acknowledgement that “we don’t have a strategy yet,” Congress looks ready to let this issue slip away with not much more than a few idle complaints.