Latest Push for ISIS War Authorization Fails

Latest Push for ISIS War Authorization Fails
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The latest attempt to force a debate on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the terrorist group ISIS overwhelmingly failed in the House Wednesday, and the question of whether Congress will eventually take up an AUMF remains uncertain.

The newest push, led by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., used a provision from the 1973 War Powers Resolution to bypass leadership and bring the measure to the House floor. The resolution – sponsored by McGovern, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee and Republican Rep. Walter Jones – would have forced President Obama to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq and Syria within six months. The lawmakers’ goal was not to try to withdraw troops, but rather to give Congress a strict deadline to pass an authorization for the war, which has been ongoing for more than 10 months.

Absent that authorization from Congress, however, the resolution would have removed troops from the fight against ISIS at the end of this year.

“If you want them to stay, you have to vote on an AUMF,” McGovern said Tuesday in a press conference. “I think it’s time for Congress to fish or cut bait on the war in Iraq and Syria.”

The vote failed 139-288, with 120 Democrats and only 19 Republicans supporting it. McGovern wasn’t dismayed by the margin, however, saying that he’d been told before the vote that supporters would be lucky to get 50 votes in favor of his resolution.

“A lot of people came up to me on the floor, Democrats and Republicans, and said they appreciated the effort,” McGovern said. “They couldn’t vote with us, they found it too difficult to vote yes, but nonetheless they were glad we did it and they hope we keep at it.”

The main argument by those who opposed the measure – including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel – was that while they agreed Congress should authorize the fight against ISIS, pushing for the withdrawal of troops as a way to force that debate was the wrong avenue.

“This is like cutting off your nose to spite your face,” Engel said.

Royce was more forceful, saying that the resolution would take the United States in the “opposite direction” of where it should be on foreign policy.

“The real question that the proponents are begging: what should the United States be doing to combat ISIS? The answer to today’s resolution would be nothing – we should withdraw from combating the ISIS threat,” Royce said. “That would be irresponsible and dangerous.”

Jones, the Republican sponsor of the resolution, said opponents misrepresented its withdrawal aspects in their arguments. “They did that on purpose,” Jones said. “They used that as kind of a stalking horse to scare people.”

The White House, while saying it would prefer an ISIS-specific AUMF, has maintained it has the legal authority to carry out operations against ISIS because of a 2001 authorization passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, when questioned about an AUMF, has repeatedly said that an authorization would not change the operations on the ground in any way, and that he doesn’t want to begin a process to draft an authorization that ultimately can’t pass.

Wednesday’s vote was just the latest attempt by lawmakers to try to force a debate on an AUMF. The push started last year, when air strikes against ISIS began, but increased with fervor when President Obama sent a draft authorization to Congress in February. But there were stark differences between the Republicans and Democrats on Obama’s language, which neither party supported. Democrats feared the AUMF draft was too open and left too much room for interpretation by the commander-in-chief. Republicans, on the other hand, felt it didn’t give him enough freedom to make decisions depending on how the fight might change. 

As a result, the effort stalled and little has been done to revive it, despite a vocal group of lawmakers pushing for a debate.  

Last week, Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, proposed an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill that would have forced a vote on an AUMF by the end of next March by cutting off all funds to the effort without an authorization. That amendment failed more narrowly, 196-231.

Schiff said in an interview with RCP that he knew it would be an uphill battle, but that he was pleased with the “strong bipartisan showing” on his amendment. He called both his amendment and Wednesday’s resolution “imperfect vehicles” to push for an AUMF, but said that there have been few other options. He said he’s going to continue looking for different ways to force Congress to debate an authorization, but ultimately, it may just take the committees in the House and Senate taking up the issue.

Schiff added that he thought action in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake have been actively pushing for an authorization, seemed much more likely. The two senators released a draft authorization that differed from Obama’s, and said they viewed it as a starting point for a debate. Schiff said he has also been circulating a new proposal for what an AUMF might look like – which he said is different from Kaine and Flake’s proposal – but that he wasn’t ready to share it publicly, though he said it was an attempt to bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats on what exactly should be authorized.

“In the meantime,” Schiff said, “we’re going to keep raising this issue and pounding away at it, because I think we’re doing long-term damage to the institution of Congress and to our system of checks and balances.”

McGovern, when asked about the next steps on an AUMF, had a similar message: “We’re not ruling out we won’t try this again,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “But we’re going to continue to try to appeal to the leadership of this House, try to put pressure on them, maybe even try to shame them, if that’s what it takes, to do their job.”

Jones, who sponsored the resolution with McGovern and was one of the 19 Republicans who supported it, said he laid the blame squarely on Speaker John Boehner. Jones pointed out that Boehner said last month that Obama should send another draft AUMF to Capitol Hill, given the unpopularity of his first one, and said the speaker’s lack of action is the reason the debate has stalled.

Schiff had a similar message, saying that if Boehner simply changed his mind, an AUMF could “absolutely” move forward.

“Had the speaker, once we received the draft from the president, said, ‘I don’t like this draft but we’re going to mark up our own version in committee,’ we would have long since taken up an AUMF,” Schiff said. “But I think the avoidance of this issue comes from the very top here in the House, there’s just been no willingness or commitment to taking up a war vote and I think that apathy starts at the very top.”

McGovern said he wouldn’t rule out trying a similar resolution in the future, and that he and fellow lawmakers are going to continue to be vocal in pushing leadership for an AUMF. He said multiple times this week that not voting on an authorization for force is “moral cowardice.”

“We’ve been at war for 10 months and the number of troops that we’re deploying is escalating, the amount of money we are spending is escalating,” McGovern said. “If that doesn’t deserve a debate, then I don’t know what the hell does.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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