The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted Thursday to authorize U.S. military action against the Islamic State “and associated forces” for three years, while prohibiting the introduction of ground combat troops.
The 10-to-8 vote was along party lines, with Republicans on the committee voting against the measure, mostly because they believed it limited the president’s actions too much and at least one, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), because it did not limit them enough.
The authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) is unlikely to make it to the Senate floor before the current Congress adjourns. But the debate surrounding it provided a preview of where parties are likely to stand when the Senate reconvenes under Republican leadership next month.
Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the principal sponsor, said that rather than tying the hands of the president in using force, “we create checks and balances on the commander in chief as is envisioned by the founders.” Others had proposed limiting the authorization to one year.
In testimony Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry asked the committee not to prohibit the use of ground forces, saying President Obama had already said it was not his intention to deploy them as part of the air campaign against the Islamic State that began last summer.
“The president has been crystal clear that his policy is that U.S. military forces will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL,” Kerry said. “It doesn’t mean that we should preemptively bind the hands of the commander in chief or our commanders in the field in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee.” ISIL is one of several acronyms that refer to the Islamic State.
Most Republicans spoke strongly against the limits on time and the use of ground troops.
“We are committed to defeating ISIL . . . but only if we can do it with airstrikes alone . . . or only in three years . . . or one year . . . and only where they’re currently located?” asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Paul had proposed an amendment that would have geographically limited the authorization to Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, Obama has authorized up to 3,000 U.S. troops to conduct training and other missions, while saying they will not be directly involved in combat.
Paul also argued that the term “associated forces” was ill defined and would open the door to U.S. military action in at least 30 countries where similar militant campaigns are underway or there are adherents to the Islamic State.
“I fear that limitations won’t be enough,” he said, and that both Democratic and Republican administrations “will abuse” such power.
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), who has long pushed for a new authorization, said the exercise was worth it despite the unlikelihood of a floor vote. “If we had waited until January . . . by the first week we’re back we’re already into the sixth month of a unilateral war that many of us feel lacks a legal authority,” he said. “We forced the issue,” he said, and the committee bill “will become the default position from which we will continue to work” when the new Congress convenes.
While the administration has supported new legislation, it believes it already has sufficient congressional authority for air attacks in Iraq and Syria, under the 2001 AUMF that both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have interpreted to include al-Qaeda and “associated forces.” The term is not included in the 2001 legislation and has never been fully defined by either president.
The new legislation, which would supersede the 2001 AUMF, defines “associated forces” as “individuals and organizations fighting for or on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or a closely related successor entity.”
It also would repeal a separate AUMF, passed by Congress in 2002, that authorized the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That authorization has been cited by the administration as justification for current operations against the Islamic State in Iraq.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the current ranking minority member and likely committee chairman in the next Congress, who voted against the measure, said that he wanted to hear more from the administration on its concerns about limiting language and would prefer that the White House submit its own language.
“I think we ought to go ahead and vote, and move on, and know that this is something that will continue,” Corker said.