Pressure from rank-and-file members of Congress is forcing Republican and Democratic House leaders to seek ideas for a new authorization for military force against the Islamic State. But despite the urgency on both sides, the process seems likely to push the parties farther apart instead of yielding common ground.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) revealed this week that he asked Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) to hold a series of closed-door “listening sessions” with Republicans to gauge “whether and how” a new Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State could be drafted. The first session, held Thursday, drew about a dozen participants.
On the other side of the aisle, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), is preparing a discussion draft of a new AUMF that came together after similar conversations with committee Democrats. Engel is expected to release the draft publicly next week.
Yet, the increased interest in a new AUMF does not appear to be bringing lawmakers any closer to the kind of bipartisan compromise that could clear the House, pass a recalcitrant Senate and avoid President Obama’s veto pen.
Obama sent Congress his proposal for a new authorization measure nearly a year ago. Since then, Republicans have not been enthusiastic about the idea of a new AUMF, fearing that any such measure could put limits on the president's ability to effectively fight the Islamic State and, more important, tie the hands of the next president in the fight against the terrorist group. But the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., sparked a new sense of urgency that Congress should weigh in on the Islamic State fight.
In the past few months, moderate and conservative Republicans have signed on to letters demanding Ryan schedule an AUMF debate, with one arguing that “even if the Administration refuses to define the enemy for whom and what they are — radical Islamist terrorists — we must fulfill our responsibilities as Congress” by passing a new authorization before the winter holiday break.
Nothing happened, and the matter dragged on. But after Ryan endorsed the idea of an AUMF debate in December, he sparked hope that a formal process of information-gathering could lead to some kind of breakthrough.
Ryan’s decision to deputize McCarthy and Royce to take the conference’s temperature regarding an AUMF is in keeping with his leadership team’s style, especially in national security matters. Since he became speaker, Ryan has talked about “inclusive” leadership. And in the wake of the Paris attacks, McCarthy and Royce were two of several party leaders who formed a task force to come up with legislative responses, such as bills to temporarily halt the inflow of Syrian refugees and amend the country’s visa waiver program.
But there is not much expectation that this time the process of talking about an AUMF will actually yield a workable product.
Most House Republicans who have spoken favorably about a new Islamic State-focused AUMF condition their support on it being broad enough; their big concern is that it would not restrict the president from introducing ground troops or carrying on a long-running fight.
“If we can get an AUMF done that ensures our commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat ISIS, I want to move it,” Royce said, using another name for the Islamic State. “But ultimately, it is going to be up to President Obama to lead. Containment has failed. The administration already has the authority it needs to take the fight to these radical Islamist terrorists, and it needs to step up.”
The Obama administration has been conducting its campaign against the Islamic State under the umbrella of the 2001 AUMF, which let the United States go after the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and affiliated groups, and the 2002 AUMF that preceded the start of the war in Iraq. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have accepted the legal basis of those AUMFs as satisfactory.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said he, like other Republicans, thinks that “it would be clearer to update” the existing AUMF to send a message that Congress was firmly focused on defeating and destroying the Islamic State. Some House Republicans have even argued that the administration is “shoe-horning” the fight against the Islamic State into the existing AUMFs.
Yet most Republicans have balked at proposals from Democrats that would replace the AUMFs with measures that sunset the president’s authority to conduct a war against the Islamic State after a few years or require Congress to approve the introduction of ground forces.
In that way, the renewed attention to an AUMF is already yielding political dividends, by giving Republican lawmakers new opportunities to question Obama’s commitment to defeating the Islamic State, no matter how long it takes.
“We never like timelines when it comes to this kind of stuff,” McCaul said. “I’ve never seen a president ask for less authority to go to war with someone like ISIS.”
Democrats, however, are unlikely to let an AUMF proceed that does not impose some restrictions on the president’s authority to fight the Islamic State — and Engel's forthcoming proposal may be the most restrictive of all. As it stands, Engel’s proposal would replace the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs with a three-year measure focused on al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and affiliated groups and require the president to put any plans to introduce ground forces to Congress before putting boots on the ground, according to Democratic aides on the Foreign Affairs Committee.