Nine months in, Congress mute on Obama’s war against the Islamic State

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Chief Washington Correspondent
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, left, has sought to rally GOP support for a use-of-force resolution. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Nine months after American bombs first rocked Islamic State targets in the Middle East, a small group of U.S. lawmakers is making what may be their last attempt to get Congress to vote on explicitly authorizing the military campaign. They will have to overcome an unhelpful White House that insists it already has all the authority it needs, a difficult congressional schedule, wary Republican leaders who don’t seem especially keen to put a GOP stamp of approval on President Barack Obama’s war, and a U.S. public that isn’t exactly clamoring for Congress to step in.

From the outside, their odds of success don’t look good.

“The view from the inside doesn’t look much better than the view from the outside,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a tireless advocate for Congress finding its voice on the issue, recently told Yahoo News.

But to those like Schiff who want to see a vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), it’s a must-have debate about whether Congress will passively accept that the president — any president, including the one chosen in 2016 — can deploy American forces for combat overseas anytime, anyplace, without lawmakers’ input.

image

Tim Kaine, right, and Adam Schiff have both pressed for Congress to formally authorize force against the Islamic State group. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“We are now at the end of nine months of a unilateral executive war, and Congress has not said a word about it,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Yahoo News in an interview on Wednesday. “It creates such a horrible precedent.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee members of both parties have been sharing legislative language that they hope will help overcome resistance from Democrats and Republicans alike to the draft AUMF Obama sent to Congress. They aim to forge a bipartisan consensus that reflects the broad national agreement on the need to take on the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.

“We have begun those conversations,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Yahoo News by telephone Thursday. But he warned against moving forward with legislation that could not command broad bipartisan support. “Right now, I don’t think there’s anybody who thinks the U.S. is divided on ISIS … I don’t want a vote to show division in our country,” he said.

Kaine, who has argued for a formal AUMF vote since mid-2014, told Yahoo News that “the worst thing is to do nothing, and the close-second worst thing is doing this in a partisan way.”

There is bipartisan agreement on two things at least. First, the AUMF proposal Obama grudgingly submitted six months after the fighting began can’t pass in its current form. Second, the White House has washed its hands of the debate.

“The president isn’t opposed to an AUMF; he just doesn’t care about it. He’s not going to lift his little finger to do anything about it,” Corker charged.

Asked on May 1 what the administration would do to help pass Obama’s AUMF, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “I think we’ve done just about everything that is imaginable that an executive branch can do to try to move a law through the Congress.” He went on to accuse Congress of having been “essentially AWOL,” the military acronym for “absent without leave.”

image

Demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State slogans and wave the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, last June. (Photo: AP)

The White House attempt to pin the blame on lawmakers annoys congressional Republicans and Democrats alike. They note that, from the start of the strikes against the Islamic State group, Obama has said he doesn’t need a new AUMF, arguing that the new campaign is legal under the 2001 AUMF that underpins the entire war on terrorism. Over the next few months, the White House said, it was up to Congress to take the lead on an AUMF, even though historically most such legislation emerges from the administration.

In a press conference immediately after Democrats lost control of the Senate in the November midterm elections, Obama said he would welcome an AUMF, but that it could wait until 2015, when Republicans would control both houses of Congress. In January, he said he would send up an AUMF. He finally did so on Feb. 11. Top officials have lobbied Congress to pass the measure as is, but offered no substantive changes to try to win over reluctant lawmakers.

“It’s no wonder why we’re nowhere on this subject,” a Senate Democratic aide told Yahoo News.

In the end, Obama’s AUMF reflected his national security aides’ desire that it not tie his hands. The document authorizes airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the next three years. It forbids the use of American ground troops in “enduring offensive ground combat operations” — a deliberately vague term. It also allows strikes against “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL” anywhere in the world.

Democrats have balked at endorsing such an open-ended approach and want clearer limits, notably on the use of U.S. ground forces.

“They want to make sure that if a Republican president is elected — or a president they feel is more hawkish, on either side of the aisle — we don’t end up in major ground combat operations,” said Corker.

For months, Republicans have said that they dislike the expiration date, and view a vote for the AUMF as a vote for Obama’s approach — essentially a recipe for sharing the political price if something goes wrong.

“They see an AUMF as buying into a strategy that they don’t believe is going to bear fruit,” Corker said.

image

Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listen as President Barack Obama speaks about the Islamic State group in February at the White House. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In late April, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said he wouldn’t support an AUMF “until the president gets serious about an overarching strategy to take on the terrorist threat.”

Corker declined to spell out his thinking on ways to bridge the gaps.

But Kaine told Yahoo News that one compromise floating around the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be to require regular administration reports to Congress on “benchmarks and strategy,” including how U.S. ground troops are being used and what military operations are taking place in Syria.

An aide to another Democrat on the committee told Yahoo News that senators are looking at modifying the president’s AUMF with “a requirement that the administration report to Congress on its political/diplomatic objectives, specific military objectives, benchmarks, and an end goal and strategy, etc.

“The strategy requirement is a priority for Republicans now,” the aide said.

It’s not clear whether this would win over GOP support. Corker said he would keep his own counsel until the private back-and-forth has yielded “fully baked” ideas.

Kaine said the key was for the committee to produce a bipartisan compromise. “Then there’s a bill on the floor, and you can argue with those who oppose it: ‘Why? You’re not against ISIL?’ or ‘You think the president can do whatever he wants?’”

Senate passage is hardly a sure thing, in part because the chamber’s packed spring schedule does not leave much room for tackling such a difficult and divisive issue. And success there would still set the stage for a fight in the House of Representatives.

“There is overwhelming support for a military effort against ISIL,” said Schiff. “It should not be beyond the Congress’s competence to shape that in a way that enjoys majority support.”

Still, in a break from his Senate colleagues, Schiff said he would be OK with an AUMF that passes with “the bulk of one party” and “a smattering” of the other. “Sitting on our hands is just not an option,” he said.

“We just have to continue to keep the pressure up and not let this issue fade from view,” Schiff added. “We’re setting a horrendous precedent for the future and really shirking our constitutional duty.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting