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White House Works To Get Congressional Support On ISIS Plan

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Any Democrat in Iowa is going to be hit with tough questions about foreign-policy. Barack Obama won there in 2008 partly because of his opposition to the Iraq war, but now with the rise of ISIS, the president finds himself drawn back into the region. He's asking Congress for more resources to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels. It's a request that's brought together strange bedfellows as the administration works the phones to win support on Capitol Hill.

CORNISH: We're joined now, as we are most Mondays, by Cokie Roberts. Cokie, welcome.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough ran the gauntlet of TV shows yesterday to talk about the president's plans for fighting ISIS. Why does the president - the White House - feel the need to do this full-court press when polls show that the majority Americans are actually on their side?

ROBERTS: Well, it happened on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry going to a meeting in Paris to try to get other countries on our side in an attempt to show the foreign community that everybody in America is on the same side, but it's tough because the administration is having trouble even coming up with the vocabulary to describe what we're doing in the region. Kerry said yesterday that there's a, quote, "torture debate" about the terminology of what to call this action. Is it a continuation of the ongoing fight against terrorists or is it war? And that matters, Audie, both in terms of politics - because of course this president did pledge to end the wars - but it also matters in terms of policy. If we're at war, then Congress should act to deal with the War Powers Act. The president's been submitting reports under that law, as his predecessors have done, but also as his predecessors have done, he has said that he doesn't need it - the authorization - that he can act as commander-in-chief, but he is clearly preparing the groundwork for a vote in Congress.

CORNISH: It sounds like the president is still eager for congressional approval.

ROBERTS: Well, it's always better to get it than not to. The fear is of course that he might not get it because it's very difficult to get this Congress to act on anything. But, you know, this question of whether we're at war or not has different members of the administration with different talking points, and the question of how serious this threat is to the American homeland also seems to have people in various places along that spectrum. So they're trying to find a way to make the public and Congress feel that this is a serious threat without scaring people to death and without scaring the financial markets.

So there's lots of debate in Congress about how big a threat it is, what to do about it. There's splits within the parties, as you said, strange bedfellows. Some are saying that the president is doing too little; some are saying that he's not doing enough. So there's a - you know, how this debate comes out is very uncertain, and potential presidential candidates worry about casting a vote because they see something like Iowa and then, you know, I think that they're really hesitant to act before the elections. So if a debate comes, it'll come after the election, which is something of a sad commentary.

CORNISH: Now, one place where Congress actually is going to act right away is on a bill keeping the government going over the last few months of the year. The president weighed in on that also, asking that aid for the Syrian rebels, he tacked on to that bill. It seems like that phone call may have made a difference?

ROBERTS: Yeah, he called the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hal Rogers, and asked for this. And Rogers said, you know, this is the first time I've gotten a call from the president, which leads you to believe that it might have made a difference if the president had been reaching out to Congress that way over the last several years. It might have made a difference in terms of his ability to get things through. It looks like the House is likely to separate this aid for the rebels off of that great big spending bill, but it is likely to happen and get passed this week. So that's one place that you will see very likely congressional action.

CORNISH: That's Cokie Roberts. She joins us here most Mondays on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Thanks so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.