Obama’s Call for Force Authorization Against Islamic State Exposes Split (Wall Street Journal)

WASHINGTON—In a State of the Union speech that avoided a usual laundry list of requests to Congress, President Barack Obama was particularly direct about one: Asking lawmakers to formally authorize military action against Islamic State.

“Take a vote,” the president told lawmakers Tuesday, arguing that the action would be the best way for Congress to send a signal to the world that the U.S. is unified in the war against ISIS.

But almost a year and a half after the U.S. initiated airstrikes to slow the militants’ advance, the legislation remains in limbo, tied up in a debate over how much latitude to grant this president as well as a successor who is yet to be determined. Some lawmakers are worried about tying the hands of the White House; others are worried about handing over a blank check.


On a practical level, a formal authorization is unlikely to change much.


The White House says it can rely on a war authorization Congress passed in 2001 to respond to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and many lawmakers don’t appear to be challenging that.


But on a deeper level, the action would be important as a way for Congress to assert itself in the fight on terrorism while also preserving its institutional prerogative to declare war.


Some lawmakers, both House conservatives and some Democrats, say those rights need to be defended and are putting pressure on leaders to move forward.


House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) last week said Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R., Calif.), would hold listening sessions with members to determine whether and how Congress could take up an authorization. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has repeatedly ruled out holding a vote while Mr. Obama is president, saying that a narrow authorization requested by the White House would tie the hands of a future president.


The divergence of views will be hashed out starting on Thursday, when House and Senate Republicans hold a retreat to come together around policy priorities.


Among the rank and file, lawmakers are all over the map on the issue. Not all of them agree that Mr. Obama actually needs explicit authority from Congress to attack ISIS. Beyond that, they are divided over whether to pass a broad resolution authorizing unlimited resources to combat Islamic State, or set limits that would restrict the president from sending in ground troops.


Many Democrats don’t want a repeat of the conditions that led to the Iraq war and to the war in Afghanistan—the longest in U.S. history—and favor repealing the 2001 authorization, and another from 2002 that authorized military action in Iraq, and replacing them with measures that limit the use of ground troops. Republicans don’t want to do anything that would limit the military—or the next commander in chief.


Among Republicans, other disagreements include whether a use-of-force resolution should expire after a certain number of years.


Some Republicans say that an expiration date could further tie the Pentagon’s hands by creating uncertainty about the extent of the military’s commitment. Others are confident Congress would be able to renew any authorization were the military to need it.


And none of this falls neatly along party lines.


Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, says Congress should vote because “the most important responsibility we have as a member of Congress is to debate and vote on whether we commit our young men and women to die for this country.”


He says that is the case even if Congress rejects a force authorization.


That sets him apart from Republican leaders, who have concluded it would be damaging to morale were Congress to balk at authorizing the very actions the U.S. military is currently conducting.


Still, House members who for years have called for such a resolution see an opening in Mr. Ryan’s willingness to explore a military authorization, a shift from the position taken by former House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.


“I think we have a window of opportunity that we didn’t have before,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.


The current mood in Congress is a shift from five years ago, when the House publicly chastised Mr. Obama by passing a resolution saying the president had failed to provide an adequate rationale for a military intervention in Libya and gave him 14 days to explain why he didn’t seek congressional authorization.


In weighing whether to push forward with a military force authorization, Mr. Ryan has said that he wants the initiative to come from the committees and rank-and-file.


Mr. Royce, the Foreign Affairs chairman, said in a statement that he had already been holding conversations about a resolution “that ensures our commanders have the flexibility they need to take the fight to ISIS.”


But he also put the burden on Mr. Obama, saying that the White House “already has the authority it needs, yet it sat paralyzed while ISIS expanded.”


Mr. McConnell has made the same argument, saying Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Mr. Obama should “step up” in his last year and “lay out a plan” to defeat the group.


“It’s an uphill battle,” concludes Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.), who is part of a bicameral, bipartisan group that is seeking to build support for a military authorization. “It shouldn’t be, since it is our constitutional responsibility.”

Source: Wall Street Journal