A move to write new war powers to authorize the Obama administration’s 9-month-old battle against Islamic State militants has stalled in Congress. It might even be dead.
President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to mind. And while lawmakers say they don’t want to give up their check on a commander-in-chief’s authority to use military might, they have little interest in having what would be the first war vote in Congress in 13 years.
Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was recently asked whether Congress was still going to craft a new AUMF.
“What does that stand for?” Corker joked, knowing that it stands for Authorization for the Use of Military Force. But his five words said a lot.
After Obama ordered airstrikes in August over Iraq and in September over Syria against IS militants, lawmakers complained that he was justifying the action with dusty war powers written to authorize conflicts after 9/11. Today, there is hardly a word about it on Capitol Hill.
“I’m not optimistic. I wish I were,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Associated Press. “The snag is there is no real political will or interest in doing it.”
He said Congress has a lot to lose if it doesn’t.
“As an institution, we’re the ones who are going to suffer because future presidents are going to look back at this and say, ‘We don’t need Congress to make war.’ It’s a terrible precedent,” Schiff said.
He believes that if a new military force authorization is not passed, the current Congress will have done more to weaken its own power as a check on the executive branch than any other Congress in memory.
In the U.S. battle against the Islamic State group, Obama has been relying on congressional authorizations given to President George W. Bush for the war on al-Qaida and the Iraq invasion. The White House said they gave Obama authority to act without new approval by Congress under the 1973 War Powers Act.
The act, passed during the Vietnam War, serves as a constitutional check on presidential power to declare war without congressional consent. It requires presidents to notify Congress within 48 hours of military action and limits the use of military forces to no more than 60 days unless Congress authorizes force or declares war.
Critics say the White House’s use of post-9/11 congressional authorizations is a legal stretch at best.
Obama has insisted that he is on firm legal footing in sending more than 4,000 U.S. troops to train and assist Iraqi security forces and launching thousands of airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria. But he also has said that he would welcome a new authorization to cover the current military operations.
Generally, conservatives want Congress to approve broad authorities for the president to fight IS militants with no limits on ground troops. They say banning U.S. combat troops or restricting the fight to Iraq and Syria only emboldens the militants, who would seek safe haven outside the borders of those countries.
Other lawmakers want any new war powers to be narrowly defined to give the president authority to train and equip local forces and conduct airstrikes but not to launch a combat mission on the ground.
The fighting in Iraq heated up again this weekend as the contested city of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State group on Sunday, and Iraqi forces abandoned their weapons and armored vehicles to flee the provincial capital in a major loss despite intensified U.S.-led airstrikes.
The war powers issue was a hot topic on Capitol Hill late last year.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee called administration officials in to testify. The panel eventually passed a new authorization on Dec. 11, but it was clear the measure wouldn’t make it to the Senate floor before the end of the last congressional session.
The plan was to wait until after the new Congress was seated in January. Then lawmakers decided to wait until Obama sent Congress a written draft of what he wanted in a new authorization. He did that in February, but there was little response.
Some lawmakers pledged to focus on the authorization after finishing legislation on the Iran nuclear deal. That bill was sent to the White House on Thursday, but there’s still no indication that the war powers issue is going to gain traction.
Schiff and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., recently circulated a letter to try to generate support in the House.
“There were only 30 of us — out of 435 — who think that we have a constitutional imperative of acting nine months after the war began,” Schiff said.
Corker isn’t optimistic either.
He said not one Democrat backs what he termed the “limited” authorization Obama sent to Congress.
Under Obama’s proposal, the use of military force against Islamic State fighters would be authorized for three years, unrestricted by national borders. The fight could be extended to any “closely related successor entity” to the IS extremists, but the measure does not authorize large-scale ground operations.
Corker said some Republicans, who do not think the White House has a strategy in Syria, don’t want to limit the authorization because it would appear that they are “embracing a nonstrategy in Syria.”
Corker, who calls it an “intellectual exercise,” said any new war authorization would not permit U.S. military action already underway in the region.
“It’s about limiting the next president,” he said.