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Congressional Leaders To Be Briefed On Fight Against ISIS


Now that the U.S. is striking ISIS and other groups, the president says he wants Congress on board. He said, this week, the world should know the U.S. is united. And when congressional leaders visit the White House today, they'll hear an update on the air campaign. NPR's David Welna reports on the decisions facing Congress.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At his first postelection news conference this week, President Obama put lawmakers on notice. They needed to start thinking about giving him something he had earlier insisted he did not need.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm going to begin engaging Congress over a new authorization to use military force against ISIL.

WELNA: Obama is currently relying on two old laws designed to go after al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, laws he now says are no longer suited for the current fight. Crafting a new law that would authorize military action, he added, is needed to confront a different kind of enemy.

OBAMA: It'll be a process of listening to members of Congress as well as us presenting what we think needs to be the set of authorities that we have. And I'm confident we're going to be able to get that done.

WELNA: Congressman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, is also pushing for a new use of force measure, but one with clear restrictions.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: It definitely has to be limited in duration. But I also think it should be limited in terms of the type of force the president employs. The president has said this is a conflict where American ground troops will not be involved in a combat mission. And therefore, I don't think he should seek an authorization that goes beyond that.

WELNA: Others say there should be no strings attached. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, is poised to take over is chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee. Here's McCain yesterday on MSNBC.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We need to understand that the president is the commander-in-chief. And that role, I do not believe, should be impinged upon by the Congress.

WELNA: Because telling a president how to fight a war could mean Congress getting blamed should things go badly. John Elliott was spokesman for the Senate Armed Services panel the last time it was run by Republicans. He says lawmakers will be forced to take a stand.

JOHN ELLIOTT: The authorization for use of military force is something that is a very difficult vote for members of Congress, either in the House or in the Senate, because it's very easy to be a critic. But it's very tough to stand up and say, look, this is what our policy should be.

WELNA: The president made clear he wants the debate over a new use of force measure to start in the lame-duck Congress that convenes next week. That debate might just happen. Lawmakers have to decide whether to approve more money to train and equip Syrian rebel forces. Here's Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.


SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: We insisted on that terminating at the end of this year so we could have a new discussion with the administration about where the administration sees the battle against ISIS.

WELNA: McConnell is set to become Senate majority leader. Republican leaders' misgivings about the president's strategy were deepened by reports yesterday that Obama sent a secret letter last month to Iran's supreme leader. It reminded Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that both the U.S. and Iran oppose the Islamic State. That brought a scornful response from House Speaker John Boehner.


REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I don't trust the Iranians. I don't think we need to bring them into this. And I would hope that the negotiations that are underway are serious negotiations. But I have my doubts.

WELNA: And there are doubts about other national security matters as well in a new, GOP-led Congress - among them, transferring prisoners from Guantanamo, approving new rules on government surveillance and releasing the findings of the long-stalled investigation on past CIA interrogation practices, what's widely known as The Torture Report. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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