This was supposed to be easier.
Come back to Washington from August recess and pass a temporary spending bill to keep government from shutting down on Oct. 1, then return home to campaign ahead of the midterm elections. That was all Congress wanted to do in September.
Instead, lawmakers eager to go home at the end of this week for the pre-Election Day stretch run must first deal with President Obama’s request for authority to arm Syrian rebels. And they will also play host this week to the president of Ukraine, who will be addressing Congress on Thursday, amid the ongoing incursion of Russian forces into his country’s territory.
All politics may be local, but foreign policy is now taking center stage.
There is broad—though not unanimous—support in the House and Senate for Obama’s plan to aid Syrian rebels combating Islamic State militants. But whether lawmakers will include the provision he seeks in the must-pass spending bill, or take some other legislative route, remains unclear.
House Republicans began weighing the request last week, and many prefer to leave the Syria language out of the spending bill, known as a continuing resolution. The gravity of the situation necessitates it be debated separately and voted on as a matter of conscience, some Republicans say.
But a standalone bill that will focus entirely on war authority is the last thing some Democrats fighting for their majority want to weigh in on, or have on their campaign resumes. “Plan A” is to pass the CR and the war-training authority in one measure, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said. “Plan B” would be a separate vote.
Combining the war vote with the CR leaves Democrats on the campaign trail some rhetorical wiggle room, the aide said. They can argue their vote was needed to keep the government open, including some money to fight a cruel and dangerous enemy, the thinking goes. But political opponents could wield an entirely separate vote to their own advantage, the aide said.
Meanwhile, the administration will not be just a bystander in this debate.
A handful of top administration officials are headed to Capitol Hill this week to explain—and defend—the plan to take on ISIS.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are to appear Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss what threat the terrorist organization poses. Hagel is also expected to travel across the Hill Thursday to the House Armed Services Committee to defend the administration’s proposal to defeat ISIS. Its chairman, Rep. Buck McKeon, wants to embed special operations forces with Sunni tribes in Iraq.