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Republicans Open to Some of Obama’s SOTU Requests

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and his guitar are ready to board the buses bound for the Joint Republican Issues Conference in Baltimore. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and his guitar are ready to board the buses bound for the Joint Republican Issues Conference in Baltimore. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Although Republicans dismissed much of what President Barack Obama said in his final state of the Union address, they spoke Wednesday about pursuing at least one of the president’s asks: a vote to an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State.  

“If this Congress is serious about winning this war, and wants to send a message to our troops and the world, authorize the use of military force against ISIL,” Obama said Tuesday night. “Take a vote.” House Republicans in particular are hoping to vote to authorize the use of military force against the terror group, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has encouraged committee chairmen to see if they can build support on the divisive issue. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he does not believe Congress should pass a measure that would describe authority to both Obama and the next president.  

The division among GOP leaders about how and when to write a war powers resolution could come to a head this week, as House and Senate Republicans gather in Baltimore Wednesday through Friday for a joint retreat. Divisions could also emerge on two other priorities the president raised in Tuesday’s speech: a criminal justice overhaul and trade.  

In an effort to find some common ground on the AUMF, the House has already begun listening sessions on the topic, which members acknowledge is complicated. “There’s a big diversity of opinion as to what we should do on that issue,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said. “I don’t think we can come to any consensus as a conference.”  

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes said he hopes the House can vote on the resolution this year. “I don’t know that we can get it through the Senate or get a signature by the president,” he said. Nunes said he is planning to work with leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees to see if they can reach a bipartisan agreement.  

Some House members have been discouraged by McConnell’s comments, Nunes acknowledged, but said that shouldn’t be an obstacle to reaching consensus in the House.  

Despite McConnell’s disinterest in passing a new AUMF this year, the idea is gaining momentum, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., told Roll Call.  

Flake broke ranks with his party on a few issues during the president’s address, standing up and applauding at Obama’s call for Congress to vote on an AUMF, approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership and lift the trade embargo with Cuba.  

While Flake acknowledged he’s likely alone on the Cuba issue, the broader topic of trade interests other Republicans. Ryan has signaled he wants to move the trade deal forward, while McConnell has suggested it could not pass Congress before the 2016 elections. “I sure hope in the end that we move this,” Flake said.  

Another Obama priority that resonates with Republican lawmakers is an overhaul of the criminal justice system.  

“I think his efforts by and large have been helpful,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told reporters Wednesday. He said top Obama officials in the Justice Department have been supportive of lawmakers’ work on the matter and helped in providing statistics and other information.  

However, bipartisan consensus may not be enough to overcome one major hurdle lawmakers face: the calendar. The 2016 session has been shortened due to the November elections, with the House in town for 95 days and the Senate in session for 26 weeks.  

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told reporters Wednesday that administration officials realize “we don’t have a lot of time” to strike a deal.  

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, remained optimistic Wednesday that the Senate could find the time, even though McConnell has said  he will devote significant floor time to spending bills.  

Cornyn was part of a bipartisan group of senators that introduced a criminal justice overhaul bill in October that would lower mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, target violent criminals and hand judges more say in doling out sentences for less-serious crimes. He was among  a group of lawmakers who met with Obama a few weeks ago to discuss the issue.  

”Basically his message to us was, ‘If you guys want me to be engaged in this, I will. Or if it’s more helpful to be in the background, I’ll do that,’” Cornyn recalled.  

McDonough called the meetings on criminal justice “substantive,” but warned that Obama must negotiate with conservative members who sit on what “have become some of the most partisan committees.”  

They include Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who voted against the bipartisan bill citing concerns that it would lead to more criminals on the streets and an increase in crime.  

“I think we need to slow down this thing. I think we need to really study it,” Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, said Wednesday. He was also concerned Democrats would be able to insert their agenda into the bill.  

Some conservatives, such as Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., support the measure, but are doubtful it will get done this year.  “I just don’t think there’s going to be an overwhelming push, a lot of energy behind sentencing reform in the next six to 10 months,” he said.  

John Bennett contributed to this report. 
Contact McPherson at and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson.
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