Members of Congress expect to receive President Barack Obama’s request for new war powers to fight the Islamic State as soon as this week, almost exactly six months after he launched the war against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.
What will follow may be one of the first full debates over the president’s power to start war and direct U.S. military intervention in conflicts abroad since Congress approved the invasion of Iraq. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which presides over the authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, is standing by to hold a hearing this week as soon as the request arrives.
“Sen. Corker expects the president will send text of an authorization as soon as next week,” an aide for committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Defense One Friday. “At that point, the committee will hold rigorous hearings in which the administration can provide greater clarity on the U.S. strategy regarding ISIS, particularly in Syria.”
The aide confirmed that the committee is planning to hold the first hearing this week, while noting, “We don’t know what day the administration will send text … Timing of hearings will depend on when we receive text.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday he expected the AUMF in a matter of days, with a warning: “This is not going to be an easy lift.”
For months, White House officials and members of Congress have been pointing fingers over who should take the lead on authorizing the war against the Islamic State, or ISIS. Obama’s request at least will break the months-long stalemate that provided cover to both branches reluctant to own the war and to risk political fallout from an inevitably contentious public debate.
Though Congress doesn’t need a draft from the White House in order to write, debate and pass an authorization for the use of force, historically, the president has first outlined the language and then sent his request to lawmakers. Members of both parties have criticized the administration for foot-dragging, saying they cannot provide the administration authority for the Islamic State fight when they don’t know what they’re authorizing.
This summer, as the Islamic State rampaged through a wide expanse of territory from Syria into Iraq, the administration initially said it did not need Congress’s permission to enter the fight, relying on the president’s own war powers as commander in chief and under the Constitution. After Obama approved air strikes in August, the administration said the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs provided additional authority for the expanded operation, despite earlier pledges to refine and repeal the Bush-era laws. By the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, Congress approved the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have been used broadly in the decade since as the legal foundation for counterterrorism operations across the globe.
Yet on Nov. 5, the day after the Republicans swept into control of both chambers in the midterm elections, Obama said that securing a new AUMF for the Islamic State operation would be one of his priorities for the rest of the year, “to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight, rather than previous fights.” Obama again said in his State of the Union address that he wanted a new AUMF from lawmakers. But for the first time, he added the off-script phrase, “We need that authority,” an acknowledgement the White House has walked back.
Administration officials say they will reveal what the AUMF will contain upon its release “relatively soon.” In recent weeks, White House officials have been working with lawmakers from both parties on the language that will be submitted, an attempt to attract bipartisan support. Administration officials say they have made progress, but there are deep divisions among lawmakers over the way forward for the ISIS war and what should be included. Some lawmakers are concerned about passing another sweeping “blank check” AUMF that could be interpreted as permission to conduct endless war, while others don’t want to restrict the military in such a way that the current operation cannot succeed.
In a preview of what’s to come, as the clock ran out on the last Congress, former Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced and took up an AUMF in the committee in the absence of guidance from the White House. The committee passed the measure, one of half a dozen competing versions that have been introduced by lawmakers. But the vote followed party lines, and the bill died last session.
Secretary of State John Kerry opposed Menendez’s bill because of its limitations on the geography of the fight, the authorization’s duration and ground troops engaging in combat. Two weeks ago, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said of an AUMF that “all options should be on the table” in order to grant the Pentagon maximum flexibility to ultimately “degrade and destroy” ISIS.
It’s likely the White House’s AUMF will seek the maximum flexibility possible for the military while, in a concession to Democrats, repealing the 2002 AUMF and replacing the 2001 AUMF after several years. A sunset date will likely be set beyond Obama’s own presidency with loopholes for the next commander in chief to extend military operations. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week they are discussing a three-year limit and specifying the fight to the Islamic State.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged, “There will be a very robust debate.”
“Let’s face it … things that aren’t that serious have a hard time getting through the United States Congress these days,” Earnest said. “So when we’re talking about something as weighty as an authorization to use military force, I would anticipate that it will require substantial effort.”