WASHINGTON — President Obama said Wednesday he’d “welcome congressional support” for his plan to “degrade and destroy” ISIS terrorists in the Middle East, even as the White House says he has the authority to move forward with at least some of his plans anyway.
But lawmakers certainly want their say, and members of the Minnesota delegation said Thursday that Obama should move quickly to include them in the process.
They’re coming at this from a lot of different angles. Even though most of the delegation supports attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria in theory, some are concerned that Obama might not have the legal authority to do it, or that the mission will lack a degree of legitimacy if Congress doesn’t sign off first, or that the White House still needs to fill in the details of its plan. Others want a chance to vote against any military operations at all.
The congressional debate over an ISIS strategy on Thursday was a lot different than the last time Obama came to Congress asking for military authority in the Middle East. One year ago, he wanted congressional buy-in for a plan to target the Assad regime in Syria over its use of chemical weapons. But his lobbying efforts were coming up well short, and it looked possible that Congress would deny him his authorization, before a diplomatic compromise took the issue out of Congress’s hands.
This time, members on both sides of the aisle, from Speaker John Boehner to some traditionally anti-war liberals, say that as long as they get the details first, they could back a plan to arm rebels in Syria and authorize airstrikes there against ISIS. The White House acknowledges it needs Congress to sign off on the former, but it could rely on past use-of-force authorizations for the latter.
Walz: Congress must authorize Syria strikes
But Rep. Tim Walz, who supports airstrikes, said he’s worried that authority might not apply, legally, to any action in Syria.
The U.S. has already conducted airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq under a 2001 force authorization against al-Qaeda. But before expanding that action to Syria, Walz said that “from a constitutional perspective, and from a building a strong coalition, showing the world we’re together” perspective, Obama should bring a request to Congress.
“I think we are better served if this done in a public format here and let the world see we’re united on this,” he said.
Sen. Al Franken said the Senate plans to hold hearings on the ISIS strategy next week. He supports airstrikes, but he didn’t say Thursday whether Obama needs to get congressional approval for them — he said a White House briefing on the ISIS plans just gave a “basic outline” of the strategy.
“I think my role, and the role of every member of Congress, is to ask questions and make sure that we understand the plan in its entirety and in as granular way as possible so that we go into something like this with our eyes wide open, and a plan with the best chance to work,” he said. “We’ll see next week what authority the president is seeking.”
Congress to consider funding for rebels
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Thursday that Congress should move quickly on approving Obama’s request for $500 million to train Syrian rebel factions. But when it comes to the necessity of a broader airstrike authorization, she, too, said she’s waiting for details.
“Our focus right now must be on authorizing training for the moderate Syrian opposition,” she said in a statement. “I support the president seeking additional authority from Congress as we examine the scope and length of the mission.”
Rep. Keith Ellison’s Progressive Caucus has said that Congress needs to sign off the strikes. Ellison said he’s looking for more details on the diplomatic component of the plan, such as who, exactly, is involved in the military coalition Obama referenced in his Wednesday speech.
“Discretion is the better part of valor,” he said on CNN Friday morning. “There are a lot non-military parts of this problem that must occur in order for this to be successful.”
Republican Rep. John Kline said “legal advisers are going to debate” if Obama already has, or still needs to acquire, authority from lawmakers to expand the airstrikes. But “to get full, moral support of the country behind him,” Kline said, he needs to come to Congress.
“What he’s done is say, I can do it on my own, but if you guys want to help me, that’s ok,” Kline said. “No, no, no. You tell us what the language is you need, Mr. Commander-in-Chief, send it over to the Hill, and let us vote on it. My guess is it would pass with a very big number, it would show very strong American support.”
Is it something he could support?
“Very likely,” Kline said, “but I’ve got to see it, that’s the point.”
Nolan: No to military strikes
Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, though, said he won’t support either airstrikes or aid for the Syrian rebels.
Nolan, who has established a more defined anti-war streak than any member of the Minnesota delegation, said Thursday that Obama should focus on locating and targeting terrorists who kill Americans rather than launching a bigger operation against ISIS.
“This is a Middle East problem, it’s been going on for 1,000 years or more, it cannot be solved by us, it has to be solved by them,” he said. “We cannot afford any more blood or treasury in this conflict.”
But whether members support or oppose the ISIS approach, Nolan said he doesn’t think Obama has the power to move forward without Congress.
“Absolutely, whether you think it’s a good idea or not, to launch airstrikes in another country is clearly an act of war,” he said. “The Constitution could not be more clear: that’s the responsibility of the Congress, not some imperial presidency. And I would very much oppose.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry