Menendez on ISIS vote: 'It has nothing to do with the election'

Dana Bash interviews Robert Menendez
Dana Bash interviews Robert Menendez

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    Dana Bash interviews Robert Menendez

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Dana Bash interviews Robert Menendez 06:33

Story highlights

  • Senate Foreign Relations Chair Menendez says he wants "specifics" on plan to fight ISIS
  • 'We must be clear-eyed' on the strategy, the Democratic senator from New Jersey says
  • Secretary of State John Kerry testifyies about administration's plan to defeat militants
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Wednesday cautioned the United States against engaging with Iran in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In an exclusive interview with CNN's Dana Bash, Sen. Robert Menendez also pushed back against criticism that lawmakers are purposefully holding off on an authorization vote until after Election Day in November.
His comments came just minutes before the committee began hearing testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry on the administration's plan to combat ISIS.
Kerry said Monday in Paris that the U.S. would be open to having talks with Iran on how to deal with the group.
But Menendez said he has "a problem" with directly cooperating with Iran "because Iran has different goals than we have." He added the country has a history of creating "sectarian divisions of Iraq" and is "is one of the patrons of (Bashar al-) Assad" and his regime in Syria.
"I don't get how we engage with Iran in this context other than to realize that they're in the theater for their own interests," the New Jersey Democrat said.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday the international community and a coalition of at least 40 nations will degrade and defeat the group, which is bent on forming a caliphate from Syria to Iraq, in which strict Islamic law, or Sharia, governs all aspects of life.
The House is set to vote on a measure Wednesday to authorize the arming and training of Syrian rebels to help fight ISIS. It is expected to get folded into a bill to fund the government, meaning Congress won't vote for it as a stand-alone measure.
Bash asked Menendez if he thinks that's a "cowardly" way to approach the situation, as it makes it easier for lawmakers up for re-election to not have to be on the record on a tough vote.
"I get it. And I'm -- and I'm ready and willing to -- I voted for a year ago, on this very same committee, to do exactly what we're doing, maybe for different purposes at the time, it was to defeat Assad," he said. "I'm ready to cast that vote independently or as part of the (funding measure) myself."
Menendez said he also thinks Congress will authorize the use of military force in the region but he didn't indicate the vote would come before the midterm elections.
"It has nothing to do with the election," he said. "This is all about getting it right, not getting it fast. I don't want to have another 2001 or 2003 authorization for the use of military force that has been used 13 years later in four different parts of the world. I don't want to give an open-ended blank check to this or any other president."
Ahead of Kerry's testimony Menendez said he wants to hear "specifics" about the plan to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"I am convinced we are at war with ISIS," he said, adding that he wants to know what "resources" the U.S. will use and "who is playing what senior role" in the effort.
President Obama's top general said Tuesday it's not out of the realm of possibility -- if the situation requires it -- that the Pentagon would call for sending ground troops into Iraq to fight the terror group.
On Wednesday, Obama reiterated there would be no U.S. ground troops engaging in combat in Iraq. He told service members at U.S. Central Command in Florida that troops "do not and will not have a combat mission" to battle ISIS.
ISIS has slaughtered swaths of people in both countries, and has beheaded two American journalists and a British aid worker it held in captivity.
"We must be clear-eyed" about the risk in engaging in a fight against ISIS, Menendez said in his opening remarks shortly after speaking with Bash.
"I want to hear what success looks like [in Syria and Iraq] after fighting comes to an end," the senator said.