Imminent Threat

After Steven Sotloff Murder, Congress Demands a Vote on Obama’s ISIS War

In the wake of ISIS’s latest alleged killing of an American journalist, leading lawmakers from both parties are calling for a bigger role in the U.S. war against the terrorist group.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

Leading lawmakers in charge of foreign policy reacted Tuesday to the reported beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff by increasing their calls for more congressional involvement and oversight of President Obama’s war on ISIS.

The latest apparent ISIS atrocity against an American citizen added to the congressional anger at the Obama administration for what many critics call an incomplete and unclear plan to confront the group both in Iraq and Syria, following President Obama’s admission last week that “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The two leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday that they want to lead the charge for more congressional oversight by holding hearings and forcing a vote on Obama’s ISIS war within 60 days of the commencement of airstrikes in Iraq last month.

“The beheading of poor Mr. Sotloff really just brings back that we are dealing with a dangerous adversary…Congress needs to play a vital role and we are determined that the House Foreign Affairs Committee will lead the way,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We believe that before the president can continue beyond 60 days of doing airstrikes in Iraq or anyplace else, he would have to come to Congress and get Congress’s authority to continue.”

Engel and the committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, spoke to reporters via conference call from Israel on Tuesday. Royce said Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to the region this week, must come before Congress and present a strategy for defeating ISIS and put it up for a vote by the beginning of next month.

“We are scheduling a hearing upon our return and requesting the secretary of state to present a plan, a strategy focused on rolling back ISIS, defeating ISIS through the use of airstrikes and the support of those with common interests,” Royce said. “We anticipate there will be a vote on authorization of the use of force for such a plan. That would come within the 60-day window.”

Shortly after beginning airstrikes against ISIS in early August, Obama notified Congress of the military action consistent with the War Powers Resolution, which gives the executive branch 60 days to wage war before coming to Congress for authorization. That notification said Obama was striking ISIS in Iraq to protect U.S. personnel in Erbil and prevent a potential act of genocide against the Yazidi minorities. That 60-day window would expire in early October. Congress returns from recess next week and has two weeks of session before adjourning again until after the election.

The White House has made two additional notifications under the War Powers Resolution since first striking ISIS, including one Monday to inform Congress that Obama authorized the U.S. military to “conduct targeted airstrikes in support of an operation to deliver humanitarian assistance to the town of Amirli, where thousands of Shia Turkomen have been cut off from receiving food, water, and medical supplies for two months by ISIL,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

Other leading lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Near East Subcommittee Chairman Tim Kaine, have called on Obama to come to Congress for permission if he wants to continue the air war against ISIS past the beginning of October. Obama didn’t ask Congress before striking Libya in 2011, but he did start the process for congressional approval last year to strike the Assad regime in Syria before calling off those strikes at the last minute.

Still reeling from Obama’s August 28 declaration that the White House lacks a strategy for confronting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, top lawmakers in both parties called on the president Tuesday to get one fast and tell Congress and the American people what it is.

“The threat of ISIS is just something that I believe very strongly that we cannot take lightly. We cannot dither, we cannot just twiddle our thumbs, or wait and see. We have to act and we have to act soon,” Engel said. “The more countries that we can get in this crusade to destroy terrorism…the better it will be.”

Both Royce and Engel called on the Obama administration to step up its provision of weapons to the Free Syrian Army. The CIA gives a few FSA brigades arms, but the moderate Syrian rebels have been left without much assistance in their year-long fight against ISIS in northern and eastern Syria.

Earlier this year, the administration requested $500 million from Congress to expand the Syrian training and equipment program, but the administration’s follow-up to the request has been long delayed, and administration officials said the White House has been slow to make a decision about the parameters of the program. Even lawmakers who support the idea are frustrated with the White House’s foot-dragging.

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“Accelerate this process,” said Royce, adding that the Free Syrian Army is the antidote to the ongoing expansion of ISIS in Syria. Promised weapons to the Kurds also have been slow to arrive, Royce said.

Top officials have been talking tough about defeating ISIS since American journalist James Foley was murdered in Syria last month. Kerry tweeted August 20 that “ISIL must be destroyed/will be crushed.” On Tuesday, his spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that was still the idea, but it probably won’t happen any time soon.

“Obviously, destroying ISIL is the goal that not just the United States but many countries around the world have,” she said. “But I’m not in a position to put a deadline or a timeline on that. We want to do it as quickly as possible, but we’re not naive about their capabilities, about the growth of their support, about their efforts around the world, so I’m not going to put a timeline on it.”