President Barack Obama’s decision to launch strikes against radical Islamic groups in Syria Monday night prompted some praise and criticism that jumped across party lines, but lawmakers shared mostly muted responses as they awaited further details.
“ISIL is a direct threat to the safety and security of the United States and our allies,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement after Obama’s Tuesday morning remarks on the situation. “I support the air strikes launched by the president, understanding that this is just one step in what must be a larger effort to destroy and defeat this terrorist organization. I wish our men and women in uniform Godspeed as they carry out this fight.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also backed the White House’s decision, although he emphasized the importance of keeping American troops out of combat operations.
“I support President Obama’s decisive action to degrade and destroy ISIS and other terrorists in Syria with the assistance of our Arab partners,” Reid said in a statement. “As President Obama said, this is not our fight alone. The presence of Arab nations in these airstrikes and President Obama’s commitment that we will not use U.S. ground forces in combat are clear evidence that President Obama will not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Reid’s Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is fighting for re-election in Kentucky, backed the latest round of airstrikes.
“These strikes against ISIL and the engagement of our regional allies are important steps in defeating ISIL and I support these ongoing efforts,” McConnell said in a statement. “The president is right to keep the country and Congress updated on military and diplomatic efforts-just as it will be important for the president to update on how the air campaign will fit into the overall strategy to destroy ISIL.”
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a statement supporting the move, adding it was ”especially significant — indeed historic — that these strikes involve forces from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”
But not every Democrat who responded was as enthusiastic about the latest development. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who had warned earlier that the administration should seek congressional authorization before expanding operations into Syria, repeated his criticism on Tuesday in an interview with msnbc.
“The Constitution is pretty clear,” Kaine said. “The president always has the ability to defend the United States against any kind of imminent attack. But as soon as a president decides … to go on offense against ISIL, if it’s not just a defensive mission but an offensive one, that’s when Congress is needed.”
Some Republicans, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, have issued similar complaints about authorization even as they’ve largely backed military action against ISIS. Republican Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan, tweeted on Tuesday that it was “Irresponsible [and] immoral that instead of debating [and] voting on war, congressional leaders chose to recess Congress for nearly two months.”
Obama told members of Congress earlier this month that he had legal authority to act in Syria. The House and Senate did not address the issue before leaving Washington this month, but did pass legislation authorizing the White House to arm and train other Syrian rebel groups as a counterweight to ISIS.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, whose Republican opponent Scott Brown has touted his opposition to ISIS in campaign ads, issued a statement of support for the attack.
“Striking ISIL targets in Syria sends the clear message that the United States and its allies will take the fight to these terrorists wherever they are,” Shaheen said. “I have supported and will continue to support aggressive action to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and I am encouraged that the United States was joined in this mission by Middle East partner nations. We must continue to build a strong international coalition to defeat this terrorist group.”
The Senate’s leading Republican hawks, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, issued a supportive statement as well.
“We commend President Obama for ordering last night’s air strikes against ISIS and the Khorasan Group in Syria, and the U.S. military for the skill and courage with which it carried out this operation,” the two said in a joint statement.
However, McCain and Graham pressed Obama to threaten Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with retaliatory strikes if he used air power to strike rebel forces aligned with the American campaign against ISIS.
“Prior to last night’s operation, President Obama threatened the Assad regime with military retaliation if it attacked U.S. and partner forces fighting ISIS in Syria,” the two said. “That threat was credible, and it worked. The president should now issue a similar threat to Assad: The air strikes and barrel bombs against our moderate opposition partners and civilians in Syria must stop, or else your air power will be destroyed.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who tends to side with his party’s more hawkish wing, issued a statement praising Obama’s decision to launch strikes in Syria and affirming his belief that the president did not need to seek congressional approval to do so.
“I support the President’s actions to target ISIL’s facilities in Syria,” Rubio said, using another acronym for the Islamic State. “I have argued for months that President Obama has the authority to confront this threat to the United States wherever they seek refuge. Defeating this menace to all who value freedom and tolerance will not be easy, but is essential to our security.”
Republican Congressman Buck McKeon, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, signaled his support for the operation.
“This is one step in what will be a long fight against ISIL. With strong coalition partners, a capable military, and a clear mission; it is a fight we can win,” he also said in a statement.
Another key House leader, Homeland Security chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, joined in to back the move.
“To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria,” McCaul said in a statement.