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Breaking: Congressional vote on war against ISIS might not be dead after all

When we last checked in on the whole question of whether Congress would ever vote to authorize the war against ISIS, things looked pretty hopeless. Senator Bob Corker — the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who was thought to be the key to negotiating an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that both parties might support — had essentially slammed the door on any such vote, deriding it as an “intellectual exercise.”

It now appears, however, that the prospects for a vote are not quite dead yet. Dem Senator Tim Kaine and GOP Senator Jeff Flake have just rolled out a new AUMF that looks like it could serve as a genuine starting point for discussions. That is, if Congress is inclined to take it that way.

Of course, more than eight months have passed since the escalation against ISIS began, and more than three months have passed since Obama offered his own proposed AUMF (which many liberals and Dems thought was too broad and too vague, even as many Republicans thought it was too limiting). So this whole saga has long since devolved into something irredeemably ridiculous. As I’ve argued, however, there are still reasons to have this debate.

The new AUMF offered by Kaine and Flake contains the following, per a release from Kaine’s office:

1) A narrow purpose to protect the lives of U.S. citizens and to provide military support to regional partners in their battle to defeat ISIL.  The amendment also specifies that the use of significant U.S. ground troops in combat against ISIL, except to protect lives of U.S. citizens from imminent threat, is not consistent with such purpose
2) A sunset after three years unless reauthorized
3) A repeal of the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force
4) A clause to make this authorization the sole statutory authority for U.S. military action against ISIL (rather than the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force)

Thus, the new AUMF offered by Kaine and Flake contains one major improvement over Obama’s proposal: it specifies that the 2001 AUMF authorizing force against the perpetrators of September 11th attacks is not the basis for authorization of the current conflict. That’s important, because Obama’s original claim of authority based on that 2001 AUMF — which was absurd on its face — would have essentially rendered any new AUMF worthless.

Meanwhile, the new AUMF is a bit more specific than Obama’s was on the question of whether ground troops could be utilized: It opens the door a bit more to the use of ground troops while simultaneously putting clear limits on it. It seems to suggest that ground troops could be used in narrow circumstances, to “provide military support to regional partners in their battle to defeat ISIL,” but not in “significant” numbers, save to protect U.S. citizens from imminent threat.

Thus, the new proposal represents an effort to bridge deep differences between Democrats and Republicans over how an AUMF should be structured. Democrats had wanted to repeal the 2001 AUMF. This new proposal cancels the 2001 AUMF’s authority in this particular context. Some Republicans had wanted virtually no limits on Obama’s warmaking authority — they seemingly wanted open-ended war. This new proposal does seem to take steps towards authorizing the use of ground troops (but not in significant numbers).

Now, to be sure, Democrats could oppose those provisions opening the door to ground troops, and reject the proposal’s “limits” as insufficient. Similarly, Republicans could see those limits as too strict, and they might also oppose cancelling the authority of the 2001 AUMF, since a future GOP president might want to use it to continue this conflict (note, however, that this doesn’t repeal that 2001 AUMF, another effort to split the difference).

Put another way, the differences between Democrats and Republicans on the proper scope of Obama’s warmaking authority here may be irreconcilable. But that’s not a good enough excuse not to hold a debate and — yes — a vote.

The question now is whether Corker and GOP leaders will revisit the issue — and whether leading Democrats will actively push for that to happen.


UPDATE: The full text of the proposed new AUMF offered by Kaine and Flake can be read right here.