Orlando shooting: 3 things Congress could do

By Amber Phillips analysis

While Democrats have largely been emphasising the need for gun control and protections for the LGBT community in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, Republicans have almost universally been emphasising something else - fighting terrorism.

"We have to destroy the Islamic State," Florida Governor Rick Scott said on CNN when asked what can be done to prevent another shooting like this.

Republicans have plenty of evidence to make their case that Orlando was, above all else, an attack rooted in radical Islamic philosophy.

The gunman pledged allegiance to Isis (Islamic State) while holding four hostages in a bathroom. The FBI said they see no indication the plot was directed abroad, but they did say the shooter was radicalised. President Barack Obama said it appears to be a case of "homegrown extremism".

But what can or might Congress - which is controlled by Republicans who are emphasising terrorism and radical Islam - do to to stop it?

It's a tricky political question to ask, because most roads ultimately lead to a place legislators from both sides have been loathe to go: approving and defining the use of military force in Iraq and Syria. But they might be more willing to take another look now that the deadliest shooting in US history appears to have some connection to terrorism, said Kathleen Kidder with the Centre for a New American Security.

"I think this is going to force a conversation in a way that not even the San Bernardino shootings did," she said. "I think it's becoming clearer the appeal that [Isis] has."

We spoke to Kidder to get a better sense of what Congress might do to fight terrorism in the wake of Orlando. Here are the three big ones:

1. Authorise military force

This is the most obvious - and perhaps most difficult - step for Congress to take if it wants to fight terrorism.

First, some background: Right now, Obama has used airstrikes and sent in a very limited number of special forces in ostensibly non-combat roles under a 2001 authorisation of force Congress approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Obama and his team have maintained they're legally allowed to get involved abroad with that 15-year-old authorisation, but the President has asked for a new one to put them on better legal and political footing.

Legislators have resisted for a variety of reasons, but perhaps not least because of how many of their colleagues took a beating for voting to authorise the Iraq war (Hillary Clinton being chief among them). And then there's the uncertainty; there's simply no consensus in Congress for how long or where or even how America should fight Isis, nor is there consensus on how much power legislators should hand over to the next, to-be-determined commander in chief.

Republicans in particular are struggling with how to balance their demands that Obama get tougher on Isis with the notion they could simultaneously be empowering a President Hillary Clinton - or even a President Donald Trump, for that matter - more than they'd be comfortable with.

As for where we are now? If ever there was a moment for consensus, Kidder said, she thinks this could be it. She's noticed a subtle shift since the seven-month-old San Bernardino, California, attacks, which also had elements of homegrown extremism. Now, she said, more legislators seem willing to at least consider the idea that Congress needs to get behind some military plan to fight Isis.

"There's an idea it's continuing to send troops into a war without calling it a war," she said.

In January, none other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly introduced a resolution authorising military force with a very broad scope. It surprised even his colleagues - but has yet to come up for a vote.

This past week, two vocal proponents for authorising force, senators Tim Kaine and Jeff Flake, introduced a resolution to do just that. We'll see where it goes.

2 Allocate money to fight Isis

There's also a large amount of cash - US$58.7 billion - to fight Isis nestled in the military budget, which lawmakers are still debating.

But Kidder says it's unclear what the money would be used for. "It could be going toward bombs and drones and the whole nine yards, and/or funding for troops on the ground," she said. It would probably depend on how the broader debate to authorise military force goes.

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3 Give the FBI more power

How to fight homegrown extremism is likely to get a lot of attention after Orlando, given the shooter was US-born and the FBI twice investigated his propensity for extremism. (He was added to a terrorist watch list in 2013, then removed.)

The confusion over one man who ultimately wound up perpetrating a horrible crime emphasises what a hard job the FBI has, the bureau's director, James Comey, said.

"We're looking for needles in a nationwide haystack and trying to figure out which pieces of hay will become needles," Comey said. "If we can find a way to do that better, we will."

On this, there seems to be some bipartisan consensus.

Clinton has called for creating a team exclusively dedicated to finding lone wolves and possibly expanding who gets on the terrorist watch list.

When asked on NBC what he wants to do, Trump seemed to make boosting the FBI's needle-searching abilities a priority: "We need far better intelligence-gathering; we have terrible intelligence-gathering right now".

Both those things would probably fall under Congress's purview.

Congress could also be more strict about what people on the FBI's various terrorist watch lists or no-fly lists can and can't do - like buy guns. An attempt to do just that failed after San Bernardino, when the Senate voted down 45-54 a proposal to block suspected terrorists from buying guns and explosives, but Senate Democrats are revving it up again in the wake of Orlando.

- Washington Post

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