Congress returns to Washington this week after a 10-day break to confront the difficult business of how the United States should wage war against terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State.
The formal task is to write and approve an “authorization for the use of military force,” or AUMF, but the broader goal is to demonstrate to the world that there is unified, bipartisan support for U.S. military engagement against a new, more mystifying enemy than the ones the United States faced when Congress last approved similar resolutions, in 2001 and 2002.
So far, the only real agreement is that Congress needs to play a more forceful role in the debate over foreign affairs. The Obama administration has found itself caught in a position of sounding the alarm about potential terrorist attacks — as Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson did Sunday, highlighting intelligence suggesting the possibility of attacks on shopping malls — but offering a war resolution that includes limits on the scope of battle against the Islamic State.
Critics on the right have stepped up their campaign to refashion President Obama’s AUMF request to allow for a more expansive attack, even if it includes U.S. troops fighting on the ground. On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of his party’s leading military hawks, said he wants “the Republican party to talk openly about the hard things, like having boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, American boots on the ground” in the fight.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, militarily, that we cannot succeed in our endeavors to degrade and destroy ISIL without having an American component,” Graham said on ABC’s “This Week,” using another name for the Islamic State.
Critics on the left have worried that Obama’s AUMF request lacks specificity and would grant too much authority to the Pentagon to expand the war into other theaters. Even the president’s staunchest national security ally on Capitol Hill, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), found something to seriously quibble with in the draft.
“Oh, I think the resolution for three years, a time limit, is not appropriate. We don’t want to send a signal to the world that we’re there for just so many years. Unfortunately, this battle is going to take a long time,” Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a television interview last week on NBC.
The formal work will be conducted in the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees, the panels with jurisdiction to authorize military actions overseas.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, while military legal experts are set to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. The Senate panels are trying to put together their AUMF hearing lineups as well.
Kerry’s testimony is a regularly scheduled appearance to discuss the State Department’s annual budget, but it is certain to turn into a forum on the situation in Syria.
The AUMF request sent by Obama to Congress is just an opening bid, as is normally the case, so there will be no vote on that particular draft.
Influential lawmakers — like Reed and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee — will play key advisory roles in the war debate, and ultimately every member of the House and Senate will have a chance to vote on the resolution.
That is, if the committees can come to any kind of agreement on the outlines of a resolution.
The chance for failure is real, given that in recent years, Congress has stumbled over traditionally bipartisan moves such as long-term funding for farm policy and highway construction and is on the verge of shutting down the Department of Homeland Security over a separate immigration dispute.
On Sunday, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, noted the difficult task ahead and did not guarantee success. “We’re going to be debating an authorization for the use of military force here soon. This is an important issue. It’s important to our homeland security. It’s important to the world. And I hope as a nation we’ll take it on in a sober and important way over the next several weeks,” Corker said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The motivations for drafting and passing an AUMF are different in every corner of Congress. Many Democrats were first elected to Congress — in 2006 and 2008 — because of strong anti-war sentiment among the electorate following struggles in Iraq, and some view this as a chance to correct the mistakes from the 2002 debate that approved that war.
“I strongly believe that we must put strict limits on the use of force to ensure that the United States does not get entangled in another endless war in the Middle East,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who won a House seat in 2006, said in mid-December after voting for an early war resolution. That draft, approved on a party-line vote, placed strict limits on any use of ground troops and strong time limitations on the operation, leading Corker and other Republicans to oppose it. It was never considered on the Senate floor.
Most Republicans want to grant more-expansive powers to the president and the military chiefs that would avoid those kinds of restrictions on the prosecution of the war, and most of the newest Republican members, swept into office in November’s midterms, have adopted very traditional GOP hawkish views on matters of national security.
“I think we should not restrain the president of the United States,” McCain said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Feb. 15. “The Congress has the power of the purse. If we don’t like what the commander in chief is doing, we can cut off his funds for doing so. But to restrain him in our authorization of him taking military action, I think, frankly, is unconstitutional and eventually leads to 535 commanders in chief.”
This makes for a particularly tricky effort to find any sort of AUMF language that can win the support of both Murphy and McCain, and it illustrates the broader problem for Congress.
Interviews with key advisers to senior Republicans and Democrats showed that there is little appetite among congressional leaders to draw up a document that is particularly partisan — even under the more restrictive timelines suggested by some, this policy will be in place for whoever becomes the next president.
So Corker and Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, need to come up with some support from Democrats. Otherwise, their AUMF resolutions could meet the same fate as the all-Democratic version in December.
There’s also a bloc of Republicans who will be very unwilling to support any AUMF because they do not trust the president on military matters, according to senior Republican aides. One long-standing complaint from GOP lawmakers is that West Wing officials micromanage Pentagon officials in matters of war, and there is still some lingering resentment about a July letter from national security adviser Susan E. Rice to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) calling for “repeal” of the 2002 Iraq war resolution, sent apparently without consulting Defense Department officials.
With so many obstacles to a bipartisan majority in both chambers, Boehner declined to predict the outcome before departing for the 10-day break.
“We’re going to go through a rigorous set of hearings and oversight, and try to develop an AUMF that fits the battle that we’re in the midst of,” he told reporters.