Obama’s speech on Islamic State gets mixed reviews in divided Congress

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) talks to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during a Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) at the Capitol Visitors Center.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

As President Obama laid out a strategy Wednesday night to fight Islamic State militants, Congress is facing a tough decision over whether to approve a key part of his plan – arming the Syrian opposition.

Top congressional leaders from both parties expressed at least tentative support immediately after Obama’s nationally televised address, but members of Congress divided not only along partisan lines, but between hawkish lawmakers more willing to intervene in an overseas military offensive and liberals and tea party members who prefer a isolationist stance after more than a decade of wars.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the president “has finally begun to make the case the nation has needed him to make for quite some time: that destroying this terrorist threat requires decisive action.”


Boehner added, “A speech is not the same thing as a strategy, however. While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which the president intends to act.”

Other Republicans similarly couched praised for the president’s goals with criticism of how long it took him to reach this decision.

“Tonight the president seemed to have faced reality,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Top Democrats, including liberal leaders such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), largely backed the president’s approach for continued airstrikes on militant strongholds and said they were willing to provide authorization the president is seeking.

But in an indication of how members of his party face political pressure to demonstrate independence from the White House, some top Democratic targets in November’s electoral fight for the Senate expressed reservations.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he opposed arming the Syrian rebels “without greater assurance that we aren’t arming extremists who will eventually use the weapons against us.”


Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) called for the president’s entire plan to be put to a vote.

“The American people must be assured that we are not pursuing another open-ended conflict in the Middle East, and I will not give this president — or any other president — a blank check to begin another land war in Iraq,” he said.

Republican defense hawks who have criticized Obama’s handling of the threat posed by Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, cautiously welcomed the president’s offensive as long overdue, but still expressed doubts.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a frequent critic of Obama’s foreign policy, said he supported most of the steps Obama outlined, but said the president was downplaying the threat.

“To say America is safer and the situation is very much like Yemen and Somalia shows me that the president really doesn’t have a grasp for how serious the threat of ISIS is,” McCain said on CNN.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who has advocated airstrikes against Islamic State forces for months, largely praised the president’s message and said he was confident his colleagues would support his requests.

“If his deeds match his words than I think we’re on a good start,” he said in an interview.

Kinzinger, a major in the Air National Guard who flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he saw in Obama’s speech a president who has “evolved,” particularly on the question of American leadership.

“I’m somewhat cynical in thinking part of the reason he’s come so far is he’s seen his poll numbers,” he said. “I think public opinion has led the president instead of the president leading public opinion.”

For other lawmakers, the speech on Wednesday offered a chance to pause partisan attacks to allow the administration’s strategy to take shape.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said it was “critical that Congress and the American people come together in solidarity to support the president and our armed forces.”

“On such an important matter of national security, we must show ISIL we have the political will, the military might and the strength of a united country,” she said.

Some lawmakers seemed to be withholding comment as they await additional briefings.

“I view the president’s speech more as an opening statement than a closing argument,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), who said he is wrestling with the request to arm Syrian rebels. “This is going to be a long haul.”

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