Senate Leader Surprises Lawmakers with New ISIS War Powers Request

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, joined at right by Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and at rear left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.,  at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2016.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

AA Font size + Print

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, joined at right by Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, and at rear left by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2016.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats knew the majority leader planned to set up a debate on authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell offered mem­bers a snow-week­end sur­prise late Wed­nes­day night: Quietly tee­ing up a de­bate on the leg­al un­der­pin­ning for the fight against IS­IS.

After months of wor­ry­ing that such a res­ol­u­tion—known as an au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of mil­it­ary force—would tie the next pres­id­ent’s hands, Mc­Con­nell’s move to fast-track the meas­ure sur­prised even his top deputy, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn, who was un­aware that Mc­Con­nell had set up the au­thor­iz­a­tion.

“He did?” Cornyn asked Na­tion­al Journ­al on Thursday morn­ing.

The AUMF put for­ward by Mc­Con­nell would not re­strict the pres­id­ent’s use of ground troops, nor have any lim­its re­lated to time or geo­graphy. Nor would it touch on the is­sue of what to do with the 2001 AUMF, which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has used to at­tack IS­IS des­pite that au­thor­iz­a­tion’s in­struc­tions to use force against those who planned the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks. By con­trast, the leg­al au­thor­ity put for­ward by the ad­min­is­tra­tion last Feb­ru­ary wouldn’t au­thor­ize “en­dur­ing of­fens­ive ground com­bat op­er­a­tions” and would have ended three years after en­act­ment, un­less reau­thor­ized.

After sit­ting on the pres­id­ent’s pro­posed AUMF for nearly a year, amid deep in­fight­ing in the Sen­ate over the meas­ure, Mc­Con­nell’s move came as a sur­prise to many mem­bers. Just in Decem­ber, Mc­Con­nell dis­missed the idea of bring­ing up a new au­thor­iz­a­tion, telling re­port­ers: “It’s clear the pres­id­ent does not have a strategy in place, so it would be hard to fig­ure out how to au­thor­ize a non-strategy.”

Don Stew­art, Mc­Con­nell’s spokes­man, said Thursday in an email that the new AUMF “is not the one the [p]res­id­ent asked for” and “not one that would tie the [p]res­id­ent’s hands.”

After 18 months, I feel like the in­sti­tu­tion might be fi­nally wak­ing up that this is a threat.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Stew­art ad­ded that the pro­cess Mc­Con­nell used to set up the AUMF, known as “Rule XIV,” merely sets up the au­thor­iz­a­tion for a fu­ture vote, but does not put it on the cal­en­dar—mean­ing a vote could come at any time, or not at all. The res­ol­u­tion already has four Re­pub­lic­an co­spon­sors: Sens. Lind­sey Gra­ham, Daniel Coats, Joni Ernst, and Or­rin Hatch.

That came as news to many mem­bers Thursday. Sev­er­al sen­at­ors said they were un­aware that Mc­Con­nell had moved to fast-track an au­thor­iz­a­tion and some Re­pub­lic­ans im­me­di­ately poin­ted out is­sues with the pro­pos­al. Sen. Jeff Flake, who in­tro­duced a more lim­ited AUMF with Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat Tim Kaine last June, said: “We need to pass one—we don’t need to just make a polit­ic­al state­ment.”

“I just know that it’ll be dif­fi­cult to get Demo­crat­ic sup­port on this,” he ad­ded.

Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Bob Cork­er said that there is still a “wide di­versity” of opin­ions on the is­sue. Some Demo­crats were crit­ic­al of even the pres­id­ent’s own draft AUMF, warn­ing that they’d need ad­di­tion­al re­stric­tions from the ad­min­is­tra­tion on troop levels and geo­graph­ic bound­ar­ies be­fore they could sup­port any au­thor­iz­a­tion. Re­pub­lic­ans, mean­while, wor­ried deeply about re­strict­ing the pres­id­ent as this ad­min­is­tra­tion, and the next one, work to com­bat IS­IS.

Cork­er’s com­mit­tee—and the Sen­ate at large—was so deeply di­vided over the pres­id­ent’s AUMF pro­pos­al in Feb­ru­ary that the pan­el ul­ti­mately dropped the is­sue, with Cork­er ar­guing with the ad­min­is­tra­tion that no new au­thor­iz­a­tion was needed. “I don’t think it changes any­thing,” he said, of the new res­ol­u­tion.

“I’m in the same place that I’ve been—and that is I be­lieve the ad­min­is­tra­tion has the au­thor­ity to do what they’re do­ing,” he ad­ded. “They be­lieve they have the au­thor­ity to do what they’re do­ing. If a con­sensus de­vel­ops and I be­lieve that something con­struct­ive re­l­at­ive to us deal­ing with IS­IS might come out of it then cer­tainly I’d be glad to con­sider it.”

Still, sev­er­al long-time ad­voc­ates for passing a new meas­ure au­thor­iz­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s war against IS­IS were pleased to see an AUMF mov­ing, however slightly, for­ward.

I’m en­cour­aged by the fact that [McConnell]’s not run­ning away from this is­sue any longer.
Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

“This is the right thing,” said Gra­ham, a co­spon­sor on the new AUMF res­ol­u­tion. “This is the right in­fra­struc­ture to have.”

“If our Demo­crat­ic friends don’t want to give this pres­id­ent and oth­er pres­id­ents the abil­ity to go after IS­IS without lim­it­a­tion to geo­graphy, time and means—be on the re­cord,” he ad­ded.

Kaine, a Demo­crat who has ag­gress­ively ad­voc­ated for an AUMF, was thrilled Thursday that the Sen­ate could soon take up de­bate, though he ad­ded that he hasn’t yet seen the de­tails. “After 18 months, I feel like the in­sti­tu­tion might be fi­nally wak­ing up that this is a threat,” Kaine said. “So we’ll see what the plan is on it, but the no­tion that we may be fi­nally tak­ing our job ser­i­ously on it is something I’m hope­ful about.”

Kaine said that al­though he and the vast ma­jor­ity of Con­gress sup­port com­batting IS­IS, he dis­agrees with the ad­min­is­tra­tion that the pres­id­ent is with­in his au­thor­ity to do so. “I be­lieve the war is il­leg­al,” Kaine said Thursday. “I don’t think there’s a leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for it. And I think the greatest danger we end up do­ing is al­low­ing the pres­id­ent to wage a war without Con­gress weigh­ing in.”

Kaine ad­ded that the pres­id­ent ac­ted ini­tially “to pro­tect Amer­ic­an lives” and cred­ited the White House for send­ing over an AUMF last year. “We haven’t done any­thing. So just the no­tion that maybe fi­nally there’s some in­terest in this, I find grat­i­fy­ing. But we’ll have to work through the de­tails,” he said.

Sev­er­al Demo­crats said they were un­aware of or hadn’t read the new AUMF lan­guage, but some greeted the op­por­tun­ity to open de­bate on the is­sue.

“I haven’t read it but I’m en­cour­aged by the fact that he’s not run­ning away from this is­sue any longer,” Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin said of Mc­Con­nell. “The pres­id­ent has asked for this for a long time.”

Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, who helped to get a Demo­crat­ic draft AUMF through the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee as chair­man in Decem­ber 2014, said that the new au­thor­iz­a­tion was news to him, but that he sup­por­ted bring­ing up the is­sue.

“I’m for the Con­gress vot­ing on an AUMF; of course it de­pends what the AUMF looks like,” Men­en­dez said Thursday. “I don’t want a blank check,” he said.

Cornyn, who in Decem­ber said that Re­pub­lic­ans would not present an AUMF of their own un­til the pres­id­ent out­lined a strategy, said that he non­ethe­less wel­comed de­bate on the is­sue.

“I don’t think we should be afraid of that de­bate, but we need a co­her­ent strategy from the pres­id­ent which we still don’t have and we also don’t need to tie the hands of the next pres­id­ent by re­strict­ing what the pres­id­ent can do,” Cornyn said.

“What I find kind of iron­ic about this is the pres­id­ent ap­par­ently thinks he has all the au­thor­ity he needs to do what he’s do­ing,” he ad­ded. “But I’m not afraid of the de­bate, I think it’s an im­port­ant de­bate to have, and cer­tainly the people we send in harm’s way need to know that the coun­try is be­hind them. So, thanks for telling me.”

Close [ x ] More from DefenseOne
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from DefenseOne.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download
  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Top 5 Findings: Security of Internet of Things To Be Mission-Critical

    As federal agencies increasingly leverage these capabilities, government security stakeholders now must manage and secure a growing number of devices, including those being used remotely at the “edge” of networks in a variety of locations. With such security concerns in mind, Government Business Council undertook an indepth research study of federal government leaders in January 2017. Here are five of the key takeaways below which, taken together, paint a portrait of a government that is increasingly cognizant and concerned for the future security of IoT.

    Download
  • Coordinating Incident Response on Posts, Camps and Stations

    Effective incident response on posts, camps, and stations is an increasingly complex challenge. An effective response calls for seamless conversations between multiple stakeholders on the base and beyond its borders with civilian law enforcement and emergency services personnel. This whitepaper discusses what a modern dispatch solution looks like -- one that brings together diverse channels and media, simplifies the dispatch environment and addresses technical integration challenges to ensure next generation safety and response on Department of Defense posts, camps and stations.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.