Leadership hoping to avoid vote on ISIS

Leadership hoping to avoid vote on ISIS
© Greg Nash

Nine weeks before the midterm elections, the leaders of the House and Senate conferences are coming under pressure to call for a vote all four want to avoid.

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike say Congress should hold a vote on legislation authorizing military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


Conservatives argue lawmakers can’t pass the buck on ISIS, while liberals are worried about another administration miring the United States in an unwinnable war.

Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFeehery: The next Republican wave is coming Rift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power MORE (R-Ohio), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidVoters need to feel the benefit, not just hear the message Schumer-McConnell dial down the debt ceiling drama Mellman: Are independents really so independent? MORE (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R-Ky.) will all visit the White House on Tuesday to discuss the terror threat with President Obama.

While all four want to avoid a tough vote, that’s where the commonalities end.

Here’s a glimpse as to what leaders on Capitol Hill are thinking as they head into a crucial meeting.

John Boehner 

BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFeehery: The next Republican wave is coming Rift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power MORE and his leadership team have been reluctant to dive into the prickly debate on whether Congress should vote to authorize a broader military campaign in Iraq and Syria.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Boehner’s top lieutenant responsible for scheduling floor votes, has suggested that Congress might “take some action” if the president won’t outline a strategy.

But he also cautioned against having “535 foreign policy experts” in Congress “trying to run the military.”

The mood on ISIS has shifted suddenly, judging from the comments by lawmakers in both parties for Obama to take forceful action.

Just six weeks ago, the House voted 370-40 to remove all U.S. armed forces from Iraq, except for those needed to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel.

ISIS was already on the move in Iraq at the time of that vote, but it had yet to behead two U.S. journalists.

House GOP aides cautioned Monday that “it’s too early to tell” whether Congress will take up legislation.

Tuesday’s White House meeting and Obama’s scheduled address to the nation Wednesday are “two key points” that will shape how Congress ultimately proceeds.

“We want to wait and see what he’s going to say to the four leaders and what he’s going to say to the nation,” a GOP aide said. “How he lays out his strategy will determine how our guys and members of Congress respond.

“He needs to put out a strategy; we need to hear from the administration what their plan is,” the aide added. “If they want ‘buy-in’ from Congress, what does that mean?”

Boehner and then-Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorRepublicans eager to take on Spanberger in Virginia Virginia emerging as ground zero in battle for House majority McAuliffe's loss exposes deepening Democratic rift MORE (R-Va.) backed Obama’s “call for action” against Syria last year when the president requested authority for airstrikes against that country. 

Nancy Pelosi 

An early and vocal critic of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Pelosi nonetheless finds herself walking a tightrope on the use-of-force issue now that there’s an ally in White House.

On one hand, the minority leader is facing pressure from liberals in her caucus who, wary of getting bogged down in another protracted conflict, are demanding a vote on expanded operations against ISIS. On the other, she wants neither to put too much pressure on Obama nor to hinder his ability to take on the ISIS militants.

Splitting the difference, Pelosi recently urged a congressional debate on the intervention issue but did not commit to a vote. Instead, she said Obama’s actions, up to now, have been authorized under current law, but suggested an expansion of force might require congressional approval.

“At some point is there a need for a vote?” she asked last month. “It depends on what the president is intending to do, and what duration, and for what purpose.”

A House Democratic leadership aide said Monday that, despite pressure from some members on both sides of the aisle, leaders of both parties want to avoid a vote on the issue. Democratic leaders are wary that Republicans would play political games with the vote, the aide said, while GOP leaders fear it would keep them in Washington longer than they want to be there.

“There’s a vocal minority that wants a vote, but most folks don’t,” the aide said. “I think that’s bipartisan.”

Pelosi backed the president’s call for action against Syria last year, arguing that Syrian President Bashar Assad “crossed a line” by using chemical weapons.

Harry Reid

Reid, who has kept a low profile on the topic of a vote, faces perhaps the most difficult few weeks of any leader, because he is in danger of losing his majority.

A Democratic leadership aide said a vote on a new use-of-force resolution is unlikely, but cautioned that could change if there is strong support for it within the Senate Democratic caucus.

Last year, Reid vigorously supported Obama’s attempt to win congressional approval to launch limited military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

“The Syrian regime should fully understand that the United States is watching very, very closely. The Assad regime should be warned our country will not tolerate this breach of human decency and long-held international consensus [on the] use of chemical weapons,” he said a year ago on the Senate floor.

Mitch McConnell

McConnell has come the closest of any leader to suggesting Congress should vote on action against ISIS.

Over the weekend, the Kentucky Republican said Obama needs to present his plan to Congress and the public and to explain why he need would need additional authority from Congress to use military force.

“If the President is prepared to engage Congress with a strategic plan to protect the U.S. and our allies from ISIL, I believe he will have significant congressional support,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the group.

McConnell, who himself faces a difficult reelection race, said Obama should begin to lay make his case in Tuesday’s meeting.  

McConnell opposed the use-of-force resolution against Syria last year because he argued Syria did not pose a direct threat to U.S. interests and Obama had failed to put forth a credible military plan.