Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called on Obama to better clarify his strategy this week, and the White House has said the president will offer a frank “assessment of this critical national security priority.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest cautioned that the address would not provide a timeline for the military campaign, nor was Obama expected to outline costs for the operation.
Just a year ago, Obama asked Congress to authorize military action against Syria after reports that the country’s military had used chemical weapons against its opponents. Obama argued he did not need Congress’s authority to launch strikes but responded to calls at the time from both parties that lawmakers be given a say in the decision.
Obama’s move appeared to backfire when it became clear his administration would lose a vote on the strikes. A diplomatic deal brokered in part by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons for destruction, ended up canceling the vote.
Tuesday’s meeting with congressional leaders offered little additional insight into Obama’s plans, only reinforcing a growing sentiment that 12 months after the last Syria debate, lawmakers in both parties want to avoid a politically difficult authorization vote ahead of the midterm elections.
None of the four leaders present in the meeting mentioned the need for congressional action following the meeting, nor did they offer many clues as to what new strategy elements Obama might announce.
An aide to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president used the meeting to lay out “some of the ideas he has already discussed publicly about how to combat this threat.”
The official said Boehner signaled support for the president if he decided to deploy the military to train and advise Iraqi forces or target ISIS leadership, and that the group also discussed training and equipping the moderate Syrian opposition, which is battling both ISIS and the central government in Damascus.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Obama spent the meeting offering “a valuable opportunity for consultation on advancing security and stability in the region and beyond.”
“I’m just waiting for the president’s speech tomorrow,” added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I’m glad to have been at the White House, had a little preview of it, I look forward to it.”
It’s not clear how the president’s declaration that he does not need a vote to pursue his expanded military strategy will play on Capitol Hill.
While some congressional aides have suggested most lawmakers would like to avoid a vote, several bills have been offered to give the president Congress’s authority to take further actions against ISIS.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking before the meeting with the president, said he believed Obama should seek some sort of congressional approval “because that’s the way you hear from those of us who represent everyone in the country.”
“He really ought to be asking for our support whether or not he may think he’s authorized to do what he intends to do. I think it would be in his best interests and the country’s best interests,” he added.
An aide later clarified that McConnell was not necessarily demanding a vote on a new use-of-force resolution, and some prominent GOP lawmakers — including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — have said Obama does not need explicit approval.
Separately, the White House said it was committed to working with Capitol Hill. Earnest said Tuesday that “dozens” of members of both parties had received classified briefings from administration officials in the past week, and that every member of Congress would be welcomed to classified briefings on Thursday.
“That is an indication and just gives you a little snapshot of this administration’s commitment to robust consultation with Congress,” Earnest said.