Brave heroes in Congress may vote on ISIS war! (After the elections, obviously)

Congress' attempts to wimp out of an ISIS vote are being noticed, so they may vote after all -- but not for a while

Published September 12, 2014 5:15PM (EDT)

The debate in Congress over the president's strategy is starting to look like it may produce a broad use-of-force vote in the future. Not the immediate future, mind you, but in those long-dreamed-of post-election "lame duck" days.

Many members of Congress don't want to vote on authorizing war powers for President Obama in Iraq and Syria before the election. The objections are twofold.

1) A vote on anything meaningful? Yikes! *Sweats, looks sideways, tugs collar*

2) A vote would entail co-ownership of the strategy, meaning that if/when things go bad, members of Congress could be held responsible. Sure, it's fun to throw around cartoonishly hawkish rhetoric about how "we're in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation" or how ISIS represents "an existential threat to America," but that's just the thing: It's rhetoric! Rhetoric is cheap -- it costs nothing, in fact -- while having to back up that rhetoric with actions is  like a whole other thing.

But the problem for these members of Congress who aren't interested in voting, and aren't being implored for a vote from the president, is that commentators from the left, right and center are beginning to pick up on their obvious and astonishing moral cowardice. Who could've predicted? So now, at least, leaders in Congress are beginning to draw up scenarios for a vote.

The Washington Post reports today that at least the first, narrow role that the president has outlined for Congress -- giving the administration authority to arm and train anti-ISIS, anti-Assad factions in Syria -- appears to be gaining support. There's been some hesitation among Republicans to back the president's request, either because they're upset that it's not a full ground invasion of Syria, Iraq and every other non-America country on the planet or that they simply don't want to be seen voting for anything that President Obama wants. But Speaker John Boehner, whose objections are more of the former variety, doesn't look willing to die on this hill and has said, "It’s important to give the president what he has asked for.” It's unclear whether this authorization will come in the form of a stand-alone vote or be tucked into the upcoming short-term government funding bill. But it's something that Congress will probably get done in the next week or two.

That's just a vote on one portion of the plan, though. The bigger question is whether they'll pass a clear authorization for the use of military force in Iraq and Syria to shore up the dicey legal foundation on which the administration's strategy rests. The clearest indication yet that Congress may pursue this sort of "broader" vote comes from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. From the Hill:

"I think at some point in time, when we come back from the elections, I think there will be a consideration of a larger authorization for the use of force," he said in a CSPAN interview set to air Sunday, according to The Washington Post.

Hoyer said many members agree Congress should take up the debate about broader authorization after the election, when it has a better sense of public perception.

"I think you’re going to see a very robust discussion of exactly that exact issue, among the American people, and that after the election, we’ll come back into session better informed of the public’s view and our constituents' attitude about what they think ought to be done," he said.

Ahh, the good old "robust discussion." And there's no better time to have one than immediately after an election, when politicians can let their hair down a bit.

It's a good sign that they're starting to consider this instead of completely ducking and running. (Then again, this is just the House minority whip, who has about as much control over John Boehner's House agenda as you do.) But we're looking at the calendar right now, and boy, you just wouldn't believe all the time there is before Election Day. In just September there are another 18 days. After that there's this whole 31-day period called "October." And then there's five days' worth of November. Using an advanced mathematical algorithm called addition, we've calculated that there are 54 days remaining for members of Congress to hear from constituents and then hold a vote. That seems like a healthy amount of time. Maybe they could come back for a couple of days in mid-October.

We know, we know, politicians want to spend all of these days campaigning, because otherwise how are voters going to know, for instance, that it's the Republicans who don't like Obamacare? But voters should also have the opportunity to know before Election Day where their candidates stand on the president's new military strategy for Iraq and Syria.

Also: Congress should authorize a military escalation before a military escalation begins.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Barack Obama Congress Foreign Policy Iraq Isis John Boehner Military Steny Hoyer Syria