Can Obama Get Congress To Help Him Fight Terrorism?
Of all the things he will propose Tuesday night, Obama’s biggest challenge remains getting buy in from Congress on foreign policy.
When President Obama steps before the Republican-controlled Congress for his State of the Union address Tuesday, he is planning to tout the country's economic progress, the dwindling unemployment rate, and resurgence of the housing market. But Americans, based on Facebook's data on what people are talking about most ahead of the speech, want answers to another question. What can they expect Congress and the president to do this year to stem the threat of global terrorism?
From Australia, to Canada to France, it appears the proliferation of terrorism has hit a watershed moment, sending members of Congress scrambling as they attempt to understand how they can best safeguard the U.S. from a similar attack.
"There are are a great many people who are of potential concern and only so many resources to keep track of what they may be up to," says Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. "I think the intelligence community is well resourced, but I don't think we could ever say it has everything it needs simply because the challenge is so great."
Aside from the regular budget process, the GOP-controlled Congress will have a host of opportunities to work with the president to craft a strategy that combats the rise of Islamic extremism this year. Whether Republicans can find consensus with an administration they have long claimed is responsible for many of the security threats that have emerged overseas will be the test.
"This is one of the more remarkable chapters in American history," says Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who chairs the Armed Services Committee. "All of these things are the product of failed leadership. They didn't happen all of a sudden like an earthquake or a hurricane."
The first major piece of legislation Congress and the president are expected to hammer out is a new Authorization for Use of Military Force. The White House announced last week that it will send Congress legislation soon. The symbolic measure to give Obama the ability to use military action, many argue, is long overdue and would allow Obama to build more consensus for his plan to dismantle and destroy the Islamic State.
While Congress voted in 2014 to arm and train Syrian rebels against the Islamic State, the commander in chief has largely acted unilaterally as the military has conducted air strikes against the group in Syria and Iraq. The White House has claimed it has the authority to do so under a 2001 AUMF, which passed Congress just after September 11., but that rationale has not sat well with many Republicans and Democrats in Congress who have voiced concern that the 2001 AUMF could be used to stage a never-ending quagmire overseas.
Now, with the election over, and no end in sight for the war against terrorism, a new AUMF would give Congress the ability to set some parameters and send a strong message that Obama and the GOP are on the same page when it comes to U.S. security.
"I think a good starting place is for him to tell us what he wants, and to provide the initial document off which we would work," McConnell told reporters during his press conference last week.
The next major battle for the White House and Congress will come this summer when major pieces of the USA Patriot Act are slated to expire. Section 215—the provision that has been used to defend the collection of bulk communication data—is one of the measures that is scheduled to sunset. The June deadline will force Congress to make a choice: Will it reform some of the NSA's controversial spy programs at a time when polls show Americans are fearfulof the threat of global terrorism or will it simply let the bill expire?
Already, some security-hawk Republicans have argued the attacks in Paris are proof that the U.S. programs, while controversial, are essential for preserving U.S. security.
"This has to be a wake-up call to all of us," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Many have pledged to fight tooth and and nail to keep the programs from expiring.
"The people in our intelligence community do a great job, but Congress needs to make sure that they have the tools they need to do their job and do it well," says Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "We do have to recognize this threat for what it is, and any attempt to minimize it is a disservice to the American people."
The White House, meanwhile, has made it clear it is open to some reforms of the program, mainly in the way it houses the data it collects. And Democrats, as well as some libertarian-leaning Republicans, are lining up to try to use the deadline to push for reform.
"We do need to be careful not to let these events deter us from making desirable changes that allow us to maintain our security but also secure our privacy," Schiff says." But, I do think the change in the balance of the Senate will make it more difficult to reform."
Of all the areas ripe for bipartisanship, however, enhancements to cybersecurity top the list. The president is expected to lay out a comprehensive plan to combat the threat of cyberterrorism during his address Tuesday. The emerging threat has gained renewed attention after North Korea allegedly hacked Sony in retaliation for producing the movie "The Interview." ISIS and groups who say they support the terrorist group also claim to be using cyberterrorism against their enemies and allegedly hacked into U.S. Central Command's social-media networks last week.
The reality, however, may be that no matter what Obama says in his State of the Union, regardless of how much buy-in he is actually able to amass from Congress in his fight against global terrorism, it will not be enough to completely mitigate the threat.
"Everyone here expects to have a risk-free society," says Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. "You cannot do everything here. Individuals have to be cognizant of the danger."
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