POLITICS
09/10/2014 04:18 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Not Much Debate As Congress Girds For War With ISIS

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- It's a rare day in Washington when lawmakers in both parties agree on something. But when it comes to the Islamic State, members of Congress are practically in lockstep pushing for an expanded fight against the militant group overseas.

The Huffington Post spent Tuesday talking to a random sampling of 10 lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans, from both chambers -- about the need to step up America's role in countering the Islamic State as it expands its terrorist stronghold in Iraq and Syria. All but one were quick to frame the group as an imminent threat to the United States and one that must be snuffed out immediately.

"There's been no pushback against the Islamic State and they have made breathtaking advances. We haven't seen anything like this since Hitler and the blitzkrieg in World War II," said Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

"The Islamic State have declared war against the infidel, they have declared war against the U.S.," she said. "The question is, how will we respond? We will view their threat as a law enforcement effort or exercise, or will we respond in kind that this is war."

"They're attacking countries that are pivotal to us and pivotal to peace in the Middle East," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). "Automatically, we are affected … They're an immediate threat to the U.S."

Perhaps more notable than the show of uniformity on Capitol Hill, though, is the lack of debate over what type of threat the Islamic State actually poses to the U.S. There have been few congressional hearings on the matter, and lawmakers haven't drawn much of a distinction between the militant group being a direct threat to the U.S. versus a threat to U.S. interests overseas. Instead, most have fallen back on broad statements that the situation is severe and the U.S. must immediately beef up its military involvement abroad.

"I support a very vigorous action against [the Islamic State] because, if not, our U.S. national security interests are at stake," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and North Africa.

But asked whether she viewed the group as a direct threat to the U.S., her response was muddled.

"Whether it is or not, I think that our overriding concern should be making sure that any terrorists that can be done away with are, and that the threat does not continue and get larger," Ros-Lehtinen said. "I believe that it is a threat to the homeland because if our national security interests are threatened around the world, then it threatens the homeland as well."

Others suggested it's not that important to draw a distinction.

"I think how direct it is now may not be clear, but they're such a threat that they are, in that respect, a direct threat," said Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) "What's meant by direct, it may not be tomorrow, but the fear is it could be soon thereafter … The emphasis should not be on the word direct; the emphasis should be on the word threat."

"You don't just threaten the United States by having the will and capability to carry out an attack inside our territory," added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). "I think they are a credible threat to American interests and I think they are well on their way toward becoming a direct threat to the security of the United States."

The lack of a debate over what to do about the Islamic State is owed, in part, to the dearth of actual options. With few people advocating for the introduction of combat troops, the only major alternative to targeted military action is to do nothing. No one HuffPost spoke to on Capitol Hill proposed that.

The United States has already carried out more than 150 air strikes in Iraq against the militant group in recent months. But as America expands its military footprint in the Middle East, there has been little talk about the consequences. The skeptics in Congress say they're disturbed.

"It's fear-mongering. It's what happened after 9/11. 'Oh my god, they've got these planes crashing. Now they're going to take over America.' That's nonsense," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the only lawmaker who unequivocally dismissed the idea that Islamic State militants pose a direct threat to the United States. An indirect threat, yes, he said, but not more.

"We overreacted to 9/11. Most of the people that did 9/11 were Saudis. Why the hell didn't we invade Saudi Arabia? There wasn't one Iraqi involved in 9/11," Harkin said. "We just keep jumping from one mistake to another. I have a feeling we're going to do the same thing with [the Islamic State]."

But the majority of his colleagues don't share his concern. And since the debate is happening in the midst of election season, few lawmakers are willing to risk sounding weak on terrorism.

"I'm glad people have this 9/11 mentality again," Ros-Lehtinen said. "We can't have a 9/10 mentality."

For all the tough talk on display this week, lawmakers are facing criticisms from the 9/11 Commission for not following through with actions that could prevent a potential attack by the Islamic State. The Hill reported Wednesday that veterans of the blue-ribbon panel rebuked members of Congress for not implementing the recommendations they made 10 years ago.

Confusion over the type of threat the Islamic State poses stems in part from the range of messages coming from the administration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the group poses an imminent threat to U.S. interests abroad, while the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have said the group poses "no specific or credible terror threats to the U.S. homeland." The Pentagon, similarly, has said the Islamic State doesn't have the capability to conduct a major attack on the U.S. On Wednesday morning, the Office of Director of National Intelligence said the Islamic State's "ability to carry out complex, significant attacks in the West is currently limited," before adding that "the United States is not immune."

"They have clearly said they have a desire to attack this country. I am not one that's willing to wait for them to attack the United States," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. "If we have direct intelligence that says that that is their desire and that they have the capability to do that, we cannot allow them to grow."

"They're going to recruit people in other countries, including our country, who could conduct a terrorist attack here," said Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). "So yes, they are a clear threat to us."

Adding to the frenzy over the threat of Islamic State militants is ramped-up media coverage of the group and polls showing 90 percent of Americans fear the militant group may strike U.S. soil.

“I think it’s actually a pretty realistic view,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said when asked about the poll results. “Not of a direct threat from an Islamic State-type armed force as much as a direct threat from the kind of people who have bought into this terrorist mindset that have access to the United States.”

Some lawmakers acknowledged that the risk the group poses is unclear, but they think it's better to be safe than sorry.

"I think they're a direct threat to our interests … I don't know that they have the military resources to come here," said Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill,) an Iraq war veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. "But it only takes one terrorist to get through, right? We just need to be extra vigilant."

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