Frustration Grips Authorization Vote Over Islamic State

WASHINGTON—In his State of the Union speech this past week, President Barack Obamarepeated a call he has made several times for Congress to officially endorse the fight against Islamic State forces and “show the world we are united in this mission.”

Republican leaders in Congress say they are prepared to tackle the issue, as well. “I expect that we will have hearings on that and that we will, in fact, have a debate and a vote,” House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said this week.

But as military operations approach their sixth month, the process of actually securing a congressional vote authorizing the use of force against Islamic State fighters remains at a standstill.


Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are waiting for the administration to outline exactly what it wants in a use-of-force authorization. The White House has said Mr. Obama plans to send Congress a draft authorization but wants to consult with lawmakers first on the language.


The wording of such an authorization is important because it determines what limits, or lack thereof, there will be on U.S. operations against Islamic State forces. A narrowly written authorization that sets a time limit or specifically says ground troops can’t be used could tie the administration’s hands, while a broadly written measure would raise concerns among lawmakers wary of giving the White House a blank check.


The military operations won’t be halted in the absence of an agreement. But there are a number of reasons advocates say it is important for lawmakers to vote on an authorization. For one, it protects the prerogative of the legislative branch, which has the constitutional authority to declare war for the country as a check on the executive branch. Additionally, having lawmakers vote forces them to take political ownership of the decision to conduct military operations. And, as the president notes, the U.S. has a stronger hand abroad when its branches are unified.


The lack of action has frustrated some lawmakers.


“We really don’t want to talk about solutions to hard problems, and you have a commander-in-chief who I think is just overselling our successes and underestimating the threats,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), describing lawmakers as “dysfunctional to the core” on foreign policy.


Sen. Angus King (I., Maine), who pressed Mr. Obama to present Congress with an authorization for the use of military force at a recent closed door meeting of Senate Democrats, said Mr. Obama needs to take the initiative. He should tell lawmakers, “I’m the commander in chief, here’s the authorization I need,” Mr. King said.


But like Mr. Graham, he was skeptical about whether some of his fellow lawmakers want to engage on the issue.


“I’ve learned that Congress often is better at second guessing and criticizing than making these decisions,” he said.


Advocates for an authorization say without one, lawmakers’ power to declare war becomes meaningless.


“It’s the Congress that has the biggest institutional stake in the matter because it’s our power to declare war,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), suggesting some lawmakers may not want to take a formal vote in case the war goes badly.


The White House argues that current military operations are authorized under resolutions passed by Congress lawmakers in 2001 and 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and to deal with Iraq. While some Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly called for a vote, congressional leaders have said they want to hold off until the administration drafts its own authorization.


Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he’s had numerous conversations with the White House about a possible authorization but is still waiting for the White House to act. He said it was a “tactical error” for Mr. Obama to call on Congress to act when lawmakers are waiting on the administration.


“I hope that they’re going to come to a conclusion. I think they’re having an internal debate to figure out what they want—they’ve got a lot of voices over there,” Mr. Corker said.


Mr. Schiff questioned the idea of lawmakers waiting for the administration to send language to Capitol Hill. He is one of a number of lawmakers who have introduced their own authorization legislation as a way to try and ramp up pressure on the issue. Another, Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), said any additional delay dishonors members of the armed services.


“Five months of war has been far too long to make our service members and their families wait for a political consensus on the scope of the U.S. mission,” Mr. Kaine said.


If and when the White House delivers an authorization to Congress, it is likely to spark a heated political debate that could make passage difficult. Hawkish lawmakers such as Mr. Graham want to give the administration wide latitude, including the ability to deploy ground troops, arguing that deference should be shown to the White House.


“I don’t want to restrict the commander in chief’s options. You can’t have 535 commanders in chief,” Mr. Graham said.


Such an approach is likely to be opposed by an eclectic mix of anti-war Democrats, some libertarian Republicans, and lawmakers skeptical of engaging in another war in Iraq after the experience of the last decade. Mr. Schiff said it could create an odd pairing where Mr. Obama and conservative Republicans see their agendas line up.


Source: Wall Street Journal