The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats divided over broader war debate on Islamic State

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have expressed different views on the lame-duck debate on war powers. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Congressional Democrats are divided over the idea of a debate later this fall on setting the terms of war against the Islamic State -- a debate that would take place despite the unified support of House and Senate leaders for President Obama's initial request for training pro-Western rebels.

Rank-and-file Democrats in the House and Senate say they are looking forward to a broad war powers debate in the lame-duck session after the Nov. 4 midterm elections, echoing similar comments from most Republicans. However, Democratic leaders are divided over that issue, with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) among those counseling patience and, for now, a more narrow debate.

The scope of debate is important because many Democrats supporting the initial authorization request -- approved Wednesday on a bipartisan vote and about to have a similar result Thursday in the Senate -- suggested their yes votes were based on the premise that there would be a bigger debate on the parameters of war later this year.

Some Democrats opposed to deeper military intervention said their colleagues had been duped into believing a big war debate was coming. "That's the illusion," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), one of 85 House Democrats who opposed the president's request. "This was the vote."

The schism among Democrats became clear at a Thursday press conference of Senate Democratic leaders, during which Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said that a full war debate would take place in the lame-duck session leading to "one of the most important votes we can cast."

"It's long overdue," said Durbin, citing the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations as outdated for today's threats. "We are living on borrowed time and we're traveling on vapors."

Moments later, Reid demurred on how expansive the post-election debate should be. He cited it along with a host of other issues, ranging from allowing states to impose an Internet sales tax to confirming more presidential nominees. “We have a lot to do in the lame-duck," Reid said.

Reid noted that the National Defense Authorization Act, which he expects to debate after the election, has language related to Syrian rebels. "It's already in the bill," he told reporters, suggesting a broad debate might not be necessary.

Left unsaid: that language was a small piece of a broad bill that, if enacted, would merely ratify the modest plan to train and arm the pro-Western rebels that Congress is approving this week.

This approach mirrored Pelosi's belief that, under Obama's current war plans, there is no need for a broad debate. "I don't think he needs a bill right now to do what he is doing in the bigger sense," she told reporters Wednesday. "I think he has all of that authority. But there is a threshold that, if it is crossed, Congress will have to act."

The Democratic leaders' comments conflict with those of some Republican leaders, who crafted language this week that would have the authority to support Syrian rebels expire on Dec. 11 in order to prompt a broader debate on the issue. "I support what the president's doing. I'd like to take another look at it a couple of months from now and see how it's working out, and that would give the Congress an opportunity to revisit that issue later this year," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are expecting a full debate that would replace the 2001 bill, authorizing a war against terrorists, and the 2002 measure, which approved the war against Saddam Hussein's troops in Iraq. "I feel a little bit more confident about my vote today because I have a growing faith there will be a debate on [war] authorization in the fall," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Thursday.

He expects that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Robert Corker (R-Tenn.), to continue working throughout the fall to craft broad legislation for consideration after the elections. "There's a growing seriousness about a debate," Murphy said.

"It's very likely we will have a robust debate," Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) said Thursday.

Durbin, the No. 2 leader,  is the most senior Democrat pushing for a broad debate, suggesting several committees would work together. "We know that we're going to return for a larger authorization question as soon as we get back in November," Durbin said.

Others agreed with Reid and Pelosi, saying a broad debate would happen once Congress can measure the success of air strikes against Islamic State forces and whether a broad international coalition comes together. "It's going to take a lot longer than a few months," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 4 leader, said.