Obama pushes $5 billion counterterrorism fund to fight ISIS

Greg Nash

President Obama is pushing congressional leaders to authorize a $5 billion counterterrorism fund that could be used to support 

operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Approving the fund could allow the White House and congressional leaders to escape a tougher vote on authorizing or funding military action before the midterm elections but still achieve the “buy in” the president has said he wants from Congress.

At the same time, the request risks opening the White House up to attacks that it is asking for a blank check from Congress to carry out military action. It’s also unclear whether the counterterrorism proposal would be enough for the administration to decimate ISIS.

The president first suggested the fund during a foreign policy address earlier this year at the West Point military academy, but it went nowhere in Congress.

 The idea was revisited on Monday by White House press secretary Josh Earnest, who floated it as something that “would strengthen the hand of this president and future presidents for dealing with urgent situations like this.”

“This is a core component of the president’s strategy for dealing with this and other issues like it around the globe — that is, additional resources that can be used by the United States to build up effective partners so that when the United States has to confront threats like this, that we have well-trained, well-equipped, effective partners that we can work with to confront these problems,” Earnest said Monday.

He made the comments in response to questions about what Obama’s message would be to congressional leaders headed to the White House on Tuesday.

Obama is slated to meet Tuesday afternoon with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ahead of a public address on Wednesday about his ISIS strategy.

Administration officials also plan closed-door briefings with senators on Wednesday and with House lawmakers on Thursday, according to congressional aides.

The White House cautioned that the president has not made a final decision on whether to expand military operations against ISIS. As a result, administration officials say they don’t know whether additional congressional authorization or funding will be legally or practically necessary.

But the counterterrorism fund appears to be among the White House’s priorities as administration officials brief lawmakers this week.

An official said the fund was likely to be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting with congressional leaders and described it as a way to win a symbolic and substantive endorsement of the president’s strategy for combating ISIS.

Lawmakers from both parties balked at the counterterrorism fund when it was first proposed earlier this year, raising concerns that it would operate essentially as a “slush fund” that avoided congressional scrutiny.

“This seems like a lot of leeway that really hampers Congress’s oversight mission,” Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said of the proposal in July. 

Obama is under mounting pressure to present a strategy for dealing with the terrorist group, which over the past month has executed two American journalists while threatening the United States.

Still, lawmakers are divided as to whether there should be a vote by Congress.

Senior Democrats including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) say Obama does not need additional authority, and that position has support from hawkish Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who is weighing a presidential bid.

Other members in both parties are pressing for a vote this month on a resolution authorizing military strikes.

It’s not clear whether the funding request could fully cover an accelerated bombing campaign against ISIS. 

The United States has launched more than 140 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and it’s possible Obama will announce strikes against the group in Syria on Wednesday.

When the administration first requested the $5 billion fund earlier this summer, it asked for $2.5 billion to train and equip international partners and $1.5 billion for Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq to help with the influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. While both amounts would bolster efforts against ISIS, they would not cover additional U.S. military strikes.

The request also included $500 million “to address unforeseen contingencies related to counterterrorism or regional instability,” the White House says, and that amount could be expanded to help fund U.S. bombing against ISIS targets in Iraq or Syria.

Earnest sidestepped questions on whether the president might separately ask for emergency funding for operations against ISIS, saying he did not have “any sort of funding request to preview.”

“Unless we’re talking about a very specific order from the president, it’s hard to talk in very specific terms about what we want Congress to do,” Earnest said. 

Further complicating the issue is the mounting calls from prominent lawmakers — including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who both introduced legislation Monday — for explicit congressional approval for strikes against ISIS.

The White House has generally shrugged off the idea Obama would need congressional approval, and over the weekend the president said on “Meet the Press” that he was already “confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people.”

Pressed on Nelson’s bill Monday, Earnest would only say the administration was “certainly interested ... in getting some buy-in from Congress, and are open to considering the kinds of things that they want to move forward.”

Earnest also said the White House also hadn’t taken a position on legislation that would strip the citizenship or revoke the passports of Americans who join ISIS. 

Kristina Wong contributed.

This story was posted at and updated at 5:19 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.