Obama, Congress may find common ground on fighting Islamic State

Obama, Congress may find common ground on fighting Islamic State
Joined by lawmakers from both parties, President Obama delivers remarks at a meeting of congressional leaders in the White House Cabinet Room. (Shawn Thew / European Pressphoto Agency)

President Obama and Republican lawmakers are renewing efforts to officially authorize the fight against Islamic State terrorists, an issue that could become one of the earliest areas of cooperation between the White House and the new GOP-led Congress.

Meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, Obama suggested Republicans and Democrats might be able to work together on the economy and national security, and both sides were poised to work on the details of a new authorization for military force.


After months of little action, the potential step forward could ultimately end the reliance on Sept. 11-era laws to wage war against a new generation of militants in the Middle East.

Obama welcomed lawmakers' interest, "a clear signal of support for our ongoing military operations," a White House official said Tuesday night, requesting anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.

The nod toward collaboration came during the first major sit-down meeting since the GOP assumed control of the House and Senate. Both sides pledged to work together, mentioning cybersecurity as another opportunity to join forces.

Still, the room was not in lockstep. Obama asked lawmakers not to pass tough new sanctions against Iran that he believes would derail the diplomatic talks on the country's nuclear program. He also made a pitch for a federal investment in infrastructure to boost the economy and create jobs.

From the other side, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) expressed disappointment that Obama had already issued a veto threat on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, but was optimistic they could work together on cybersecurity.

As lawmakers gathered around the conference table of the White House Cabinet Room, the fight against Islamic State was one agenda item that appeared primed for debate.

When Obama authorized airstrikes in Iraq and Syria last year, Congress was initially reluctant to wade into a war debate. But the mood among lawmakers shifted, and they began demanding a vote on the issue. Many think the administration should no longer rely on the decade-old war authorizations.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly insisted that any effort to draft a new force resolution must begin with the White House, saying such measures historically have come from the executive branch. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took a slightly different view, telling CNN in December that he would prefer the White House take the lead but that "we're not going to wait forever."

Obama has long said he would work with lawmakers to refine and repeal the 2001 authorization for use of military force, passed to fight Al Qaeda, and another in 2002 to combat then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but his team's interactions with Congress produced little.

The president declared his support for repeal of the 2001 authorization in May 2013, and the White House confirmed its backing for repeal of the 2002 law a year ago. But the statement came with little action, leaving critics skeptical of the president's commitment to curbing his own powers.

As the fight against Islamic State ramped up, the White House maintained that the use of force was authorized by the 2001 law, a position some outsiders disputed.

Still, Obama has said he believes it is good policy to rewrite the law to meet the current conflict. In November, he told reporters he planned to seek a new use-of-force authorization.

"The idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight, rather than previous fights," Obama said. With Congress' to-do list already full at the end of last year, Obama acknowledged the process would carry over into the new year.

After Tuesday's meeting, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, suggested the president had signaled a greater willingness to work with Boehner.

The speaker brought up the question, Hoyer said, and Obama "indicated he thought that the [use-of-force authorization] was appropriate and important and that they were working on perhaps making some suggestions along that line."

The authorization for military force was also the crux of a conversation between Obama and Sen. Bob Corker, the new Republican chairman of the chamber's Foreign Relations Committee, on a trip to the senator's home state of Tennessee on Friday.

If the administration sends a resolution to Capitol Hill, Corker said, his committee would hold hearings "to really understand their plausible way forward, especially in Syria."

"It's obviously a front-burner issue," Corker said.

The new momentum toward drafting a resolution may also be an attempt to tamp down efforts to force a vote on Capitol Hill about how to respond to the Islamic State threat. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a leading congressional advocate for new authorization, said he planned to use a procedural tool to bring the president's military strategy to a vote if he did not see movement through the committee's legislation-writing process by mid-February.

"The trouble I have with the congressional leadership on the Republican side and even the White House is that it's convenient for both sides to have nothing happen," said McGovern, who sponsored a resolution that passed the House overwhelmingly last summer. It would require that any significant commitment of U.S. forces in Iraq first be approved by Congress.

"What we're doing deserves a debate and it deserves a vote," he said.

Obama pledged to listen to lawmakers' concerns and called for collaboration.

"I'm hopeful that in the spirit of cooperation and putting America first, we can be in position where, at the end of this year, we'll be able to look back and say we're that much better off than we were when we started the year," Obama said.

Still, there were indications that the president and the GOP expect a year of combat.

Before traveling to the White House, Boehner told reporters he intended to "make it clear to the president that we're listening to the American people," and said he hoped that Obama would "start to listen too."

Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.