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Obama Urges Congress To Authorize Use Of Military Force Against ISIS


U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria fall under the same legal authority Congress granted president George W. Bush to combat terrorism after the September 11 attacks. That authority hasn't been updated since. President Obama brought that up in his Oval Office address last night, using his preferred acronym for the self-proclaimed Islamic State.


BARACK OBAMA: If Congress believes, as I do, that we are at war with ISIL, it should go ahead and vote to authorize the continued use of military force against these terrorists.

CORNISH: NPR's congressional reporter Susan Davis joins us now to talk about why Congress isn't doing that. Hey there, Sue.


CORNISH: So the president sent Congress a request for a new war authorization back in February, and that outlined the military mission against ISIS. So what happened after that?

DAVIS: Well, in short, nothing has happened in part because there really hasn't been much sense of urgency about why Congress should act now. The request that the president sent to Congress earlier this year - it essentially did three things. It limited the mission to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. It put restrictions on sending any critical mass of ground troops in. And it had a sunset provision in there so the authority would expire in three years.

But when the White House sent up that request, they'd already begun their bombing campaign. So they were asking lawmakers to approve military action they were already taking. And it muddied the administration's case for why Congress needed to vote.

Now, to mention, the president's request also did not repeal that 2001 authorization that's been - was approved after 9/11. That's what gives the president very broad and unending authority to combat terrorism and undergo these military missions. And the administration has made it clear that they believe they have the existing legal authority to take this action with or without Congress. And to that point, the U.S. military has dropped over 20,000 bombs on ISIS since the military strikes began over a year ago.

CORNISH: OK. So there are lawmakers who say, why do we need to do this; you're already taking action. But there are, of course, still many members who say, this is an important debate, that it's their constitutional responsibility to take tough votes like a war authorization. So what's going on? Why isn't this actually moving to the floor?

DAVIS: There is a small group of lawmakers, notably led by Virginia Democratic senator Tim Kaine and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, who say just that - that they want to try and at least force lawmakers to debate this. But the reality is, Congress doesn't really want to take this vote. Party leaders - and in both parties - are not really confident that they can pull together the kind of bipartisan coalition that you'd want to see on a vote of this magnitude. Republicans say President Obama's request has unreasonable restrictions on the Pentagon's ability send in troops if they needed to, and Democrats are incredibly skeptical of voting to enhance any authority that would put more troops on the ground in the Middle East.

Where there is apparent agreement is that maybe it's better not to act at all and let President Obama continue the campaign on his terms and have full ownership of the strategy.

CORNISH: But to go back, something you mentioned there about ground troops - there is increased polling showing some support for that. Any chance that will prompt Congress to act?

DAVIS: There is a view that Congress just can't continue to avoid this debate altogether. And we don't know how future events might shape this conversation. But right now, we're in the midst of a presidential race, and Republicans who control Congress would much rather be having this debate with a Republican in the White House. So there is a sense that, yes, Congress may have to take another tough vote defining this war on terrorism, but the debate may just have to come under the next president.

CORNISH: That's Sue Davis, NPR's congressional reporter. Thanks, Sue.

DAVIS: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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