Why Congress won’t vote on the war against the Islamic State

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Photo illustration by Yahoo News/AP Graphics Bank

In the aftermath of the massacre in Paris, a handful of persistent members of Congress are renewing their call to take up and vote on a bill formally authorizing America’s undeclared war against the Islamic State, legislation known as an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF ). Without it, lawmakers are shirking their constitutional duties, they warn.

And while voters should take the AUMF supporters’ sentiment seriously — that elected officials should be responsible for publicly debating U.S. military action on behalf of the American people, as the Constitution intends — they also should be skeptical that Congress will actually take up and approve an AUMF, for reasons both political and substantive.

According to congressional leadership aides, the carnage on Parisian streets is unlikely to lift the obstacles to a proper debate and vote. Though some members, such as Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., are sure to continue their long campaign for an AUMF vote, many other lawmakers could keep trying to have it both ways: questioning Obama’s strategy and strategists in the media, while continuing to fully fund the military effort, known as Operation Inherent Resolve. The potent reasons for inaction in the Senate and House of Representatives rise out of policy differences as well as political demands, both on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail. Especially in election years, congressional leaders try to avoid scheduling controversial or difficult votes that might endanger vulnerable members or embarrass presidential hopefuls.

One senior Senate Democratic aide suggested that members are very aware of their history on AUMF votes, particularly those who continue to feel stung by being on the record as supporting the Iraq War before the nation as a whole came to consider that intervention a mistake. Given that, not everyone is eager to vote on an AUMF again.

“These votes are difficult and complex, and folks have a natural aversion to them. This one is particularly tricky because it’s next to impossible to find the sweet spot on the sliding scale between people who want a narrow, tailored specific mission and people who want open-ended, robust missions,” said the aide.

“No one has been able to figure out where there are 60 votes in the Senate. Nobody — not the administration, not Democrats, not Republicans, nobody — has put forward language that has the votes to pass,” the aide continued, noting that Republicans want presidents to have near unlimited power while Democrats oppose “mission creep and indefinite war.” Nothing about that partisan difference in outlook has changed in the days since the Paris attacks.

The view that Congress is unlikely to pass an authorization for engagement in Syria is a rare bipartisan point of agreement: A senior Republican aide noted that there is “no path right now to getting a new AUMF.”

But while Congress’s tendency on difficult issues is to always favor inertia over action, that has not stopped the calls from senators like Kaine and Flake from challenging their colleagues’ aversion to taking tough votes — particularly when AUMF advocates believe that those votes are mandated by the Constitution and should not be based on the polls leaders are looking at as they schedule legislation to come to the floor.

“What we’ve done is sat on the sidelines and criticized,” Kaine said in a colloquy with Flake on the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s easy to be a critic. It’s easy to sit in the stands and watch a play and say, ‘Well, why didn’t the coach call a different play?’ But we’re not fans here. We’re the owners of the team.”

Over the past 16 months, Kaine said, the United States has carried nearly 6,300 airstrikes, at a cost of $5 billion, or $11 million per day, to push Islamic State out of sections of Iraq and Syria. Ten U.S. military personnel have died, including one special operator killed in combat. But the attacks in Paris, Kaine warned, show that “the threat has mutated, like a cancer. It’s grown, and it is now affecting nations all over the world.”

Flake, perhaps freer to directly challenge President Obama because he is in the opposing party, went even further than Kaine, suggesting that a new authorization is necessary and that the government should speak with “one voice,” even as Republicans and Democrats in Congress are divided.

“The notion that a 14-year-old statute aimed at another enemy is any kind of substitute for congressional authorization is insufficient,” he said. “This mission warrants its own authorization because we want it to succeed. We want the world to know that the United States speaks with one voice.”

Votes to authorize war are among the most politically difficult votes a member will ever cast — just ask former Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. Clinton lost her 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in part because she voted in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War. She has been forced repeatedly to answer for that vote in 2015, and her struggles Saturday in a debate in Des Moines, Iowa, to clearly answer a question about whether a new AUMF is required in part catapulted the issue back into the spotlight.

Clinton said that she sided with Obama in believing that the president has all of the legal authority he needs in the AUMF passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — but also that she “would like to see” the AUMF updated.

For Republicans, arguing that Obama should have broader powers and wider freedom to act does not come naturally. But the GOP is keenly aware that the president will almost certainly hand the war against IS to his successor in 2017. Party insiders say they don’t want Congress to approve an AUMF that would put lawmakers at odds with the Republican nominee or, worse, constrain that person’s options if he or she wins in November 2016. Such a position is precarious for Republicans, as their call for increased latitude militarily for Obama runs counter to every argument they’ve made against the president domestically, that he has abused executive power on a variety of policies.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is in charge of scheduling votes on the floor, said that there has been “some” discussion of reconsidering an AUMF in light of the Paris attacks. But he also said there is not enough of a consensus that Congress should push forward, despite the loud protestations of some.

“The president doesn’t seem to think he needs additional authorities, and many of our Democratic friends basically want to put limitations on the president’s authority as part of an AUMF,” Cornyn said. “So I would like for us to debate it and consider it, but that doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion right now.”

On the other side of the Capitol, newly minted Republican House Speaker Paul D. Ryan sounded less than enthused when asked at a press conference Tuesday whether the House would act on an AUMF.

“We have the authority right now under the existing AUMF, and we’ll revisit all of these issues later,” he said dismissively.

Obama sent Congress a draft AUMF early this year, and the White House has repeatedly signaled that it is open to “reasonable” alterations, including language that would make the new legislation the only source of presidential authority for taking on IS. It landed with a thud, and the president hasn’t shown much inclination to try to nudge it back to life.

The document clearly reflects his national security aides’ desire that it not tie his hands. It 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.

The senior GOP congressional aide cited earlier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to characterize current politics more candidly, noted that opposition has come from Republicans who say the ground forces limitation is improperly restrictive and Democrats who consider it overly permissive. As a result, even though raised voices on both sides of the aisle are demanding action, actual bipartisan progress has been nearly impossible.

“Some in our caucus don’t want to approve something that they think places restrictions on the commanders. That means they won’t vote for something that gets us any meaningful number of Democrats — which, by the way, the president’s AUMF also wouldn’t get if we brought it up today,” the aide said. “We can’t have this be just GOP plus POTUS.”

“So there’s no path right now to getting a new AUMF, or changing the White House’s, that gets us to where we want: Solid bipartisan majority, president signs.”

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