President Obama and Congress agree on the need to pass a new legal authority for the fast-expanding U.S. war against the Islamic State. But with uncharacteristic mutual deference, each has been waiting for the other to propose it first.
At the White House, officials express certainty that any legal language Obama suggests would automatically become just one more target for partisan disagreement.
On Capitol Hill, disagreement about what such a measure would say, when it should be considered, and what role the administration should play in formulating it have led to stasis.
Several lawmakers tried to bypass the torpor on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue Thursday morning. The venue was a business meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where nothing related to the Islamic State appeared on a brief agenda of diplomatic confirmations and a measure to help poor countries access clean water.
Three senators proposed amendments to the Water for the World Act. A measure introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has opposed most U.S. intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere, called for a congressional declaration of war, the first since 1942, albeit with a restriction on presidential use of ground troops.
A proposal by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, authorized the president to use the military as he determined “necessary and appropriate” against the Islamic State, but also prohibited “ground combat operations.” Like Paul, Menendez limited the authorization to three years.
A third amendment, by Sen. Timothy Kaine (D-Va.), approved “all necessary and appropriate force,” but only including airstrikes, and only for one year.
Several senators bemoaned the lack of substantive debate over such a portentous matter. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking minority member and a co-sponsor of the water bill, called the meeting “almost a scene in Mayberry.”
Many blamed the White House for failing to produce legislative language and criticized its inability to produce high-level witnesses for a hearing on the issue despite months of congressional requests.
Some Republicans said Democrats were only interested in having a vote before they become the Senate minority in January. Democrats countered that their constituents were demanding a full airing of the issue.
But the committee is often an island of relative comity in the rough seas of legislative partisanship these days, and by noon the senators had agreed to give the administration one more chance to explain itself. On Monday, Menendez said, they would hold a hearing at which they expected Secretary of State John F. Kerry — who has ducked several previous invitations — to appear.
Even if the committee manages to vote on a proposal next week, the likelihood is nil that an official Authorization of the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State will pass before Congress adjourns Thursday.
To some extent, the lack of urgency has come from Obama himself. He has called for a new authorization for the war, but said he doesn’t really need it.
A senior administration official who agreed to discuss White House strategy on the condition of anonymity said that the president may eventually propose his own language for an authorization bill. “That may still happen,” the official said. “But if we do, it will become clear why that is not the magic elixir required for bipartisanship to spread.”
Asked whether the White House would be comfortable with the limited authority spelled out in the proposed amendments, the official said that while it could accept “reasonable limits,” a one-year authorization was too short for a conflict Obama has said is likely to last for years. The need for repeated reauthorization, the official said, would just provide more excuses for legislative “drama.”
“We would have to discuss” restrictions such as a prohibition against the use of combat troops, the official said. “That said, the president has been crystal-clear and does not envision a scenario in which U.S. ground troops would be in place.”
Some lawmakers insist the restriction is necessary. For others, the idea of a war without troops is nonsense. “What’s the message to ISIS?” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked committee members Thursday, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “Hey guys, all we’re going to do is bomb you, no matter what happens? That’s crazy.”
Kaine, a leading proponent of action on the issue, said he is not wedded to his proposal or any other.
But after four months of war, he said, including more than 1,100 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, nearly 3,000 U.S. ground troops who have been deployed or authorized for deployment, a cost of more than $1 billion and three American military deaths, “there’s a strange conspiracy of silence.”
“The president has not offered any proposed authorization for the war despite his suggestions that one is needed,” and “Congress has not debated on, taken committee action on, or voted” on the ongoing war.