Authorization for military force stalls
If you needed any evidence that Congress may be giving up on authorizing military force against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a House hearing Wednesday provided plenty of evidence that the movement has stalled.
The House Armed Services Committee advertised its testimony with Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey as a discussion of the so-called Authorization for the Use of Military Force, but the issue hardly came up — lawmakers instead discussed Pentagon budget details for three hours.
More than a month after the White House sought Congress’ blessing for the expanding war against the terrorist group, congressional action has bogged down in partisan rancor and divergent viewpoints over what the war should try to accomplish, how long the administration should be authorized to wage it, and what level of force will be required. To some extent, liberals who insisted the White House include several conditions such as a deadline and limits on ground troops may have overplayed their hand, undercutting some potential Republican support.
“I just don’t hear many people standing up for what the president has proposed, so I think we’re kind of moving beyond that,” House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Wednesday.
The stalled effort marks a victory of sorts for more hawkish members of Congress who like Obama believe the president already has all the authority he needs to wage the conflict and who have been reluctant to place any limits on the executive branch. But for more progressive voices and some of their erstwhile allies in the GOP caucus who want to rein in White House war-making authority and have lobbied for restricting the endeavor, the dim prospects for fresh war debate and vote constitutes a major setback.
The Senate doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to debate the issue either. In a hearing on the proposed war resolution before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) played down the prospects that a vote is in the offing. Now the House Foreign Relations Committee, which shares lead jurisdiction over the issue, has no plans to hold any more hearings on the proposal, an aide said on Wednesday.
“I am increasingly concerned that Congress will take the path of least resistance and least responsibility and let the resolution die,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, told POLITICO. “The cause has lost momentum. The reality is there is strong bipartisan majority here that supports talking action against ISIL and it would be a terrible abdication of our responsibility for this to die of apathy.”
Part of the problem stems from the Obama proposal itself, which sought to placate all sides, according to close observers.
“The particular proposal they put forward is so divisive it does not satisfy anyone — with good reason,” said Jennifer Daskal, a constitutional law professor at American University.
She explained that while Obama’s war proposal would expire in three years, by not replacing the AUMF passed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — which the president has continued to site as giving him the authority to fight ISIL — the proposed war resolution essentially has no deadline.
“The three-year limit is useless because future administrations could revert back to 2001” and continue the war without congressional input, she said.
There are also divisions over the geographic scope of the military use of force — and exactly which groups could be targeted. The administration insists it needs the flexibility to confront ISIL wherever it may exist, along with “associated” groups, raising concerns among Democrats and some Republicans that the war will be expanded to other countries.
And while Obama has repeatedly insisted he will not reintroduce large numbers of ground troops into Iraq or Syria, the proposed language itself is murky, prohibiting only “enduring” combat operations.
“They were nervous they were going to lose Republicans if they tried to address the 2001 AUMF and they knew they had to do something about ground troops because Democrats were concerned about that,” said Heather Brandon, associate attorney for national security at Human Rights First, which has advocated a very narrow authorization in both scope and duration.
When the issue of the war authorization did come up at Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans voiced a number of concerns about the president’s proposed AUMF, putting on fully display the sharp divide that would have to be overcome to forge a bipartisan agreement.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) took issue with the proposal’s ban on the enduring use of U.S. ground combat troops, asking Carter to finish this sentence: “Publicly stating that we will not use ground troops is a good idea because—.”
The Pentagon chief cautioned that he didn’t foresee a large U.S. ground presence anywhere near the level of the previous U.S. war in Iraq, and so the president didn’t request such authority. Carter also defended the proposal’s three-year time limit.
“The time limitation has nothing to do with the end of the campaign,” he said. The time limit is “derived from the fact that we will have a new president in three years, and the AUMF provides for a new president or a new Congress to revisit this issue.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a member of the armed services panel, on Wednesday noted the irony of the situation.
“You have a Republican Congress that wants to grant the president more power than he wants for himself,” the California Republican said. “The president’s AUMF didn’t even make a splash here.”
It wasn’t too long ago that members of Congress in both parties were clamoring for the debate.
Last year more than 100 members of the House from both parties signed on to a letter pleading for a full debate and vote the war, insisting that the “Constitution vests in Congress the power and responsibility to authorize offensive military action abroad.”
“Members of Congress must consider all the facts and alternatives before we can determine whether military action would contribute to ending the most recent violence, create a climate for political stability, and protect civilians from greater harm,” they added.
Brandi Hoffine, a White House spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the administration’s position remains unchanged: It believes that formal congressional backing for the anti-ISIL campaign would send a message to allies and enemies alike that the US is unified in the endeavor.
But it clearly believes the initiative lies at this point with the Congress — whether that means taking up the White House proposal or writing a new one.
Indeed, many Democrats are blaming the GOP leadership for not bringing the issue to a vote.
“We are involved in a half year war that has no end in sight,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who as head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus held a discussion on the issue with legal experts on Tuesday, told POLITICO. “Despite repeated calls from members of Congress and the American people, the House Leadership has allowed no debate on this vital national security issue.”
“It is frustrating as hell to watch,” added Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a leading antiwar voice, in an interview.
He said “last year [House Speaker John] Boehner said, ‘We have to wait for a new Congress.’ Then they said ‘We have to wait for the White House to send something.’ It just seems like Boehner and [Senate Majority Leader] McConnell can get their majority to produce anything. All the excuses are gone.”
Not everyone on the Democratic side of the aisle agrees that it is just GOP reluctance that is responsible for the lack of action.
For instance, Schiff said he believes a primary impediment has been the White House’s continued insistence that it does not need the authorization and that it already has the legal authority necessary, even as it says it would welcome congressional backing.
The “biggest obstacle,” Schiff said, is the administration position “that they don’t need it.”
“That has given Congress an excuse to shirk its responsibility,” he said in an interview.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said also expected more lobbying from the White House.
Obama administration officials “have invested no political capital in this whatsoever,” he said in an interview. We never heard hide nor hair. [The president] thinks he can give a press conference at the White House and it all falls into place. There are a lot of questions about strategy. Questions that need to be answered.”
Ultimately, however, it is now in Congress’ court, said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The fact that Congress has side stepped its responsibility until this point is frustrating enough, but conceding defeat on the ability to properly authorize a war our servicemembers have already been fighting for more than eight months is unacceptable,” he told POLITICO.
Not everyone is ready to give up on the issue and several congressional aides and their bosses said there are initial discussions under way about how to breath new life into the war debate.
Freshman Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq War veteran, told POLITICO: “There is quiet talk, especially among us veterans, that something must be done.”
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