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Republicans Should Debate War Against Islamic State

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, usually doesn't offer advice to Republican presidential candidates. But he has a suggestion for the candidates at the first Republican debate this evening: Man up. (There are no women at the prime-time debate.)

This weekend marks the first anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Yet Congress has never met its constitutional responsibility to authorize the war, which some military experts say could last a decade or more. "We've done nothing," Kaine said. "We have abdicated our constitutional responsibility."

Kaine wants the Republican debaters to state their positions on authorizing war. The question is especially pertinent to the three senators expected on stage -- Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Kaine doesn't let his fellow Democrats, including President Barack Obama, off the hook either. Obama has declared that "existing statutes provide me with the authority I need" to order strikes against Islamic State. However, Islamic State was not the subject of previous authorizations, including the 2001 AUMF passed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In February the White House submitted to Congress a draft authorization for the use of military force against Islamic State. However it hasn't pushed Congress to enact it. As mission creep sets in -- the U.S. is now coordinating attacks with Turkey and considering bombing the army of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad -- so do concerns at the White House and elsewhere over the legal justification for the war.

Democrats in the previous Congress resisted efforts by Kaine and Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee for a war authorization, which some Democrats feared would pose dangers in the 2014 midterm elections. Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, said they would vote on an authorization once they gained control of Congress in January 2015. Instead, complaining that Obama's version is too restrictive, they have sat on their hands.

In June, Kaine and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona proposed a new war authorization. It too has languished.

The Republican senators slated to debate tonight generally object to giving Obama authority on anything. But both Cruz and Rubio advocate aggressive action against Islamic State. Paul, who has blamed misguided "hawks in our party" for the creation of Islamic State, has expressed reticence about using force in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The debate is sure to include contentious topics such as immigration, Obamacare, taxes and Planned Parenthood. There should also be occasion to debate Congress' constitutional responsibility to declare war against Islamic State.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net