Obama Plan to Fight Islamic State Draws Skepticism from Democrats

Senate Democrats say they’re skeptical about President Barack Obama’s forthcoming proposal to authorize military force against Islamic State extremists and that they want strong limits on the use of combat troops.

“We should not give authority that could be used for introducing ground troops,” Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said Tuesday. He said he told administration officials of his views “so I think they know where I am.”

Cardin is one of several Foreign Relations Committee Democrats who expressed concern in advance of a closed-door session where White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and counsel Neil Eggleston briefed senators on the administration’s proposal.

The administration’s proposal would authorize military action for three years and would be narrowly focused on the fight against Islamic State, said lawmakers of both parties who were briefed on it. That time period means the next president would have to return to Congress for further action.

The plan would bar “enduring” offensive ground operations and would end the 2002 authorization of the use of military force against Iraq, according to the lawmakers.

“There were no conclusions reached today, but it was a good, good, beginning discussion,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters after the meeting.

On ‘Cusp’

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the White House is “on the cusp” of sending lawmakers a proposal, which he said would be one of the chamber’s “dominant discussions” over the next several weeks.

Language on ground forces is becoming a major issue in what may become the most contentious debate on the U.S. role in the Middle East in years.

Democrats, still angry over President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, don’t want to give Obama open-ended authority for U.S. forces to wage war in the Middle East. Republicans have said they think ground troops should be an option.

“I don’t think you can be the most powerful nation in the world and have the history we have of fighting for democracy and freedom, and totally eliminating the possibility of using forces if they’re needed,” said Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican.

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said the administration’s proposal would bar “enduring offensive combat ground troops.”

‘Significant Questions’

“I support the general framework but I have significant questions,” said Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. “I don’t know what the word ‘enduring’ means. Enduring is not in the eyes of the beholder. Enduring has to have a clock to it.”

Maine Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said that the language is meant to distinguish between “special forces going in for a period of a few days” and a long-term deployment of ground troops.

Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said members of his party asked “a lot of questions” of White House officials, particularly focusing on language barring the “enduring” offensive ground operation and whether that did enough to limit ground troop involvement.

Look ‘Carefully’

“We’re really working on critically important language, and it comes down to a phrase or two, and we just have to look at it very carefully,” Durbin said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said at a press briefing Tuesday that Obama doesn’t want to see “a large number of combat troops” in Iraq or Syria. The proposal may extend past 2017 when Obama leaves office, he said.

Earnest said the final document may be released this week, and that the president wants Congress to act “relatively soon.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who was among party leaders briefed Tuesday evening, said afterward, “We have to hear what the actual scope is. I do think there should be an authorization.”

Representative Steve Israel of New York endorsed the White House proposal after attending the briefing.

“I think what the administration is proposing is sensible,” Israel said. “It gives the president the tools that he needs without overextending.”

Bog Down

The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel of New York, said, “I’m not looking to bog us down in another war. But I’m not looking to tie the president’s hands, either.”

The full House Democratic caucus is set for a briefing from Eggleston on Wednesday morning. Senate Republicans will meet later in the day to discuss the request for military force authorization, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told reporters.

A number of Senate Democrats, including some on the Foreign Relations Committee, have said they want to use language approved by the panel in December before Republicans took control of the Senate at the start of this year.

That measure would have imposed a three-year limit and would have banned “large-scale U.S. ground combat operations.” It didn’t advance before the session ended.

Geographic Scope

A further sticking point is the authorization’s geographic scope, which Democrats say should be limited. King said the administration’s proposal would provide no geographic limits on pursuing Islamic State.

Limiting the resolution to target Islamic State forces “will allow Bashar Assad to butcher all he wants to,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, referring to the Syrian president. “That’s insane,” McCain said.

“The president’s the commander in chief, and I believe we should not constrain his military actions,” McCain told reporters.

The debate over war powers likely will spill into the 2016 presidential campaign, much as the Iraq war became an issue in the 2008 campaign.

Several Republicans considering running for president are in the Senate and would have to vote on the authorization, including Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Obama approved air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in August and has deployed trainers and advisers to assist the Iraqi military, though he has repeatedly said he won’t send U.S. ground forces.

He relied on Bush’s 2002 Iraq war authorization to begin the bombing campaign, angering some Democrats who saw the move as presidential overreach. Obama said in November he would seek authorization from Congress for the effort.

The White House confirmed Tuesday that an American aid worker held hostage by Islamic State, Kayla Jean Mueller, was dead. Islamic State has killed a number of captives, most recently burning alive a Jordanian pilot whose plane crashed during a bombing raid.

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