Islamic State War Authorization Goes Nowhere, Again

A bipartisan plan fails to appeal to either party.

Getting ISIS in his grasp?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee debated a new authorization for the use of force against the Islamic State on Tuesday, only to give up for now because it failed to garner broad support and threatened to derail an unrelated bill. The episode bodes poorly for future Congressional oversight of President Barack Obama’s war.

On Tuesday morning, Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona were touting the bipartisan bill they crafted to authorize the fight against the Islamic State, which Obama has been waging for nearly a year now while relying on several existing authorities. Kaine and Flake intended to offer the bill as amendment to the larger State Department authorization bill, which was set for a committee vote Tuesday afternoon.

Kaine told me Tuesday morning that his bill was crafted to address the concerns over the authorization that passed the committee last December, when the Democrats still held the Senate. All Democrats voted yes on that measure while all Republicans voted no, and it died on the Senate floor. Most Republicans objected on the grounds that it would have tied the president's hands in carrying out foreign military operations, while some Democrats worried it would have let the White House risk U.S. troops in combat.  

Kaine knew he faced an uphill battle, but told me that Congress couldn’t wait any longer to weigh in. “It’s time for us to get this done,” he said. “It is not as prescriptive as the Dems would like. It is not as open-ended as the R’s would like. This is our best effort to find something that is bipartisan.”

When I noted that tacking the war measure on to an unrelated State Department authorization bill risked becoming a poison pill for the latter, Kaine said he would prefer to do his bill as a stand-alone measure, but that’s just not likely. “How do you get time on anything here?" he replied. "It’s 10 months into the war. So I could wait for the perfect moment, or I could be a year into the war or more."

The Kaine-Flake legislation tries to bridge the gap between the two parties on three issues: the restriction on the use of ground troops, the disposition of the 2001 authorization for the use of force against al-Qaeda, and the potential use of force in Syria. In the end, the compromises they came up with satisfied neither Republicans nor Democrats, and especially not Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker.

I ran into Corker just before his caucus lunch and asked him if he supported the Kaine-Flake authorization text. “No, not as it’s written,” he said. “They understand that what they are offering is something that needs to be revised.”

Aides told me that, for Corker, adding the war measure to his State Department authorization bill was a non-starter, as it would bog down the process. Corker wants to add the State Department bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is on the Senate floor right now, so he has no time to waste in committee. If Corker is able to attach the State Department bill to the Pentagon measure and it passes, it would be the first successful State Department authorization in over a decade, a real coup for the chairman. If his amendment gambit fails, however, there little chance that Senate leadership will give Corker the floor time to do a State Department authorization on its own. 

As the committee was set to meet Tuesday afternoon, there was still some concern among its staffers that Kaine and Flake would insist on a vote and throw a wrench into the works. But the meeting was delayed for more than an hour while Corker and Kaine huddled in a corner, and by the time things started, the AUMF’s doom had been sealed, at least for now.

Corker allowed Kaine to raise the amendment, and a robust debate ensued. But the chairman made clear that he didn’t want to vote on the war authorization and risk the State Department measure. “I’d like for us to be able to finish something if we start it,” he said, promising to hold a closed-door meeting in the near future with Kaine and Flake and others to discuss if there was a viable way forward.

Every senator who spoke during the debate had problems with the Kaine-Flake language. Republican Rand Paul objected that the bill has no physical limits on the use of force against the jihadists. “Right now there are 60 different groups in 30 different countries that pledge allegiance to ISIS,” he said. “As written the resolution would allow us to have troops go back into Libya tomorrow.”

Democrat Barbara Boxer said that the Islamic State is expanding to other countries and “we have to follow them wherever they go.” But she, along with fellow Democrat Ed Markey, objected to the bill’s language stating that the use of “significant” ground troops would not be “consistent” with the purpose of the authorization, calling that too vague a limit on putting U.S. forces at risk. 

Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat, objected because Kaine-Flake bill would leave in place the 2001 war authorization, which he thinks should be taken "off the books."

After the members had their say, Corker asked Kaine to withdraw his amendment. Kaine did so, asking that it be brought up for consideration as stand-alone legislation. Corker said he would agree only to hold a meeting about it. “We’ll begin talking about a plausible way forward and see if we think there is a way to bring this back to the committee in such a way that we could actually pass it on the floor and pass it in the house,” Corker said.

But Corker knows there is virtually no way that the current Congress will ever agree on an Islamic State war authorization. Republicans are trying to preserve options for the next president while Democrats are trying to tie that next president’s hands, to prevent a repeat of the Iraq debacle.

Kaine is right to admonish the legislative branch for abdicating its responsibility to oversee our latest war. Yet his proposal is fatally flawed: It satisfies nobody, and is not a starting point for any meaningful progress. Obama admitted again this week that he has no strategy for the war against the Islamic State. But neither, clearly, does Congress.