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Congressional Chaos Over Obama's War Authorization

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Congress is flummoxed about how to deal with President Barack Obama’s proposed authorization for war against the Islamic State. While there's a sizeable majority of members who favor putting congressional guidance on the war, the lack of agreement on how to do so raises the possibility that efforts to pass legislation will flounder on Capitol Hill.

All week, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have been meeting behind closed doors to strategize on the White House’s proposal, which places vague limits on the use of ground troops, allows the president to expand the war to any country, and sunsets in three years. Many Republicans want to give Obama (and his successor) more flexibility; many Democrats want to tighten restrictions.

Both parties acknowledge the need for some bipartisan support for their ideas. But neither leadership has figured out how to craft a coalition that can muster 60 votes in the Senate and 218 in the House.

“It is certainly possible this thing could fall apart,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me. “The war would go on even in the absence of a new authorization, but that would really be a blow to the institution of the Congress.”

Schiff is engaged in an effort by House Democrats to add stricter definitions to the bill’s prohibition on the use of ground forces for “enduring forward combat operations,” a term they argue could have various interpretations. He wants specific language spelling out exactly what ground troops could be used for, such as special operations or combat search and rescue.

Some House Democrats are looking to libertarian-leaning Republicans to join in them in opposing any authorization bill that could be interpreted to allow large combat operations on the ground in Iraq or Syria.

“I suspect that there are a number of libertarian-oriented Republicans who share the same concerns. It will be interesting to see how many of them there are and how they line up,” Schiff said. “A lot will depend on how many Republicans will be similarly uncomfortable with another open-ended authorization.”

The Republican House leadership, on the other hand, is determined to build a mostly Republican voting block to support a bill with more flexibility for the president, not less. They hold a strong majority, but if they lose 30 Republicans on the bill, they will need to pick up some hawkish Democrats to get it passed.

The Senate will most likely act first on authorization, before the House even has a chance to weigh in. Republicans there are also divided, but along different lines. Although libertarians such as Rand Paul will advocate for stricter restrictions on the president’s war power, the real tension is between those who want to work with Democrats and those who want to take a more confrontational approach.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker favors a compromise that can create broad bipartisan support, several senior Senate aides told me. His committee has jurisdiction over the bill, so it will go first with hearings and approve the first version of the legislation. That bill is likely to track the president’s version, which was based on legislation written by Committee ranking member Robert Menendez and his Democratic colleague Senator Tim Kaine.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by John McCain, will have its own hearings. McCain and committee Republican Lindsey Graham favor removing all restrictions on the use of ground forces. Their position is shared by a majority of their own caucus, but not necessarily by enough Democrats to allow the bill to get 60 votes on the floor.

The divisions inside the Republican Senate caucus were visible in a Wednesday afternoon meeting at the Capitol. Prior to the conference, a memo circulated to all Republican senate offices (which I obtained) outlined the Republican concerns with the president’s version of the bill.

“A legislative restriction on the president’s ability to use force may test the Founders’ wisdom that we have one Commander-in-Chief under the Constitution, rather than 535. It may also undermine the seriousness of purpose, conviction, and perseverance the United States likely wishes to signal in its conduct of the armed conflict against ISIL,” the memo stated.

The memo also discussed widespread frustration and skepticism on Capitol Hill about how the White House has handled the whole issue of seeking war authorization. It noted that the administration has long called for Congressional authorization publicly but waited six months before seriously engaging Congress on the issue or proposing actual legislation.

“As a matter of institutional responsibility and good governance, along with manifesting united support for the effort, it would seem incumbent upon the Congress to debate and consider this proposal,” the memo stated. “It is, unfortunately, far too late to salvage the position of presidential candidate Obama that it is ‘preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.’ ”

After the Congressional recess that begins tomorrow, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have to decide whether to allow the president’s bill, as modified by Corker’s committee, to come to the Senate floor. Alternatively, McConnell could just introduce an entirely new AUMF, without ground troop restrictions, and use that as the start of the debate. But aides said that bypassing the Foreign Relations Committee could provoke complaints against the process and squander Democrat support, making passage much more difficult.

Even if McConnell sticks with Obama’s bill as the starting place, as the Republican-led Senate votes on amendments it is still likely to move in the direction of loosening restrictions on the president’s actions. Republicans are also going to insist on adding requirements for Executive Branch reports to Congress on the president’s strategy for defeating the Islamic State, to emphasize that they do not believe the president’s current approach is sufficient or effective.

“We need to treat this as affecting the next president, a president who actually is committing to defeating ISIL,” said a senior Senate Republican aide, who insisted on anonymity. “We want to write this AUMF as a blueprint for victory, not a blueprint for muddling through.”

For months, the Obama administration and Congress have had an unspoken agreement; both sides publicly called for a new war authorization while neither side actually pushed the issue out of a mutual comfort with the status quo. Now that the White House has made its move, Congress is forced to respond, but infighting among lawmakers could result in a failure to exert the oversight power they claim to wield.

For the White House, it’s actually a win-win. If Congress manages to pass something, it will be seen as a bipartisan endorsement of the president’s war, despite widespread discontent with how he is actually prosecuting it. If Congress balks, the president retains even more flexibility to fight the war than he is asking for, and Congress will have ensured its own irrelevance in the debate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net