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Congress Returns To A Plateful Of Foreign Problems


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Washington is back to work this week. Congress resumes on Monday with a long list of to-dos. Top of the list is passing a spending bill to keep the government running through mid-December.

And President Obama is back in Washington after an overseas visit to Estonia and Wales for the NATO Summit, where the crisis in Ukraine and the threat of the Islamic State were high on the agenda. Mara Liasson, NPR's national political correspondent, joins us now. Good to have you with us, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good to be here.

NEARY: So it seems like foreign policy is taking over Washington. President Obama just met with his NATO partners in Wales. What is he going to ask Congress to do?

LIASSON: Well, President Obama is going to consult with Congress, and he is going to ask them to support his strategy to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He formed an international coalition to go after ISIS when he was at the NATO meeting in Wales. He's now going to tell the American people why he does now have a strategy. And roughly, that strategy is airstrikes by us, boots on the ground by others, financing by others.

So he's going to ask Congress for support, not necessarily formal authorization. He's also going to ask them again to provide $500 million for the moderate Syrian rebels.

NEARY: Well, almost a year ago, the president almost used military action in Syria without the approval of Congress and got a lot of backlash from that. The president doesn't think he needs Congress's approval now or what?

LIASSON: This is a little bit different. A year ago, he said he wanted Congress' support but that he didn't need their approval legally to do this. This time is different. This is a terrorist threat against the United States. The White House believes that if the president is clear about what he wants, Congress will support him.

And in a press conference on Friday, he was a lot clearer about what the strategy would be. He said he wants to destroy ISIS, not contain it. He described a counterterrorism strategy a lot like the one the U.S. used with some success against Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

There will be voices in Congress saying he should do more. But there will be no one in Congress who says we should do less. The gruesome beheadings by ISIS have really concentrated people's attention. And it's made even this war-weary nation more amenable to doing more in the Mideast and Syria.

NEARY: And what else is on Congress' plate?

LIASSON: Well, the most important thing is that the Congress has to fund the government. The continuing resolution, the temporary funding measure that funds the government, runs out at the end of September, and Congress has to pass another one.

NEARY: One of the other things that Congress was going to consider was the president's executive actions on immigration. But this weekend, President Obama indicated that he isn't going to deal with that until after the election.

LIASSON: That's right. And that will put an end to a potential standoff over government funding because some Republicans were saying if he went forward with these executive orders, they wouldn't pass a continuing resolution. They would potentially shut down the government.

However the president has decided he will not issue these orders until after the election. He had previously said he was going to move forward very quickly after the end of the summer. But he got a lot of pushback from Senate Democrats running in red states for reelection who were worried about a backlash from Republicans who feel that any measure to defer deportation is the same thing as amnesty.

Even though immigration groups wanted the president to act as soon as possible, he's decided that the more prudent thing to do is to wait until after the election.

NEARY: Yeah. Is anybody talking about these controversial issues, the foreign policy issues? Are they talking about that on the campaign trail?

LIASSON: Foreign policy issues like Syria, like Ukraine are not figuring in this year's midterm. Foreign policy rarely figures in U.S. elections and certainly not very often in midterms.

However, immigration is a big issue on the campaign trail. And the White House was really caught by surprise at how big an issue illegal immigration became on the part of Republicans in the midterm elections. The child immigration crisis on the southwestern border really sparked this. And in many states, even states where there is very little or no illegal immigration, you hear Republicans talking about amnesty and using it as an issue against Democrats.

NEARY: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.