After One Year of War on ISIS, No AUMF in Sight
The war against ISIS began with airstrikes a year ago this week and lawmakers have spent significant time in the last 12 months debating the strategy and, in many cases, criticizing the way the Obama administration is conducting the fight. But one thing members of Congress have yet to do is have a vote – or even a substantive debate – over authorizing the military campaign.
Instead, President Obama has relied on past authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) against al-Qaeda in 2001 and in Iraq in 2002 as the legal justification for the current campaign against the terrorist organization operating mostly in Iraq and Syria. Despite the White House’s insistence, lawmakers are split on whether they agree. Some believe the president is operating within a legitimate legal framework. Others don’t.
There are also plenty of disagreements over what an AUMF against ISIS should look like, with questions over geography, duration, the use of ground troops and other thorny issues not easily overcome. A small group of lawmakers has consistently and vocally pushed for their colleagues to have this debate, but after a year of military action, they’ve yet to successfully force congressional action despite the Constitution putting the power to declare war specifically in the hands of legislators.
“I think Congress’ unwillingness to debate and be heard on this issue is cowardice,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told RealClearPolitics in an interview outside the House chamber. “If we’re going to deploy our brave men and women in the military to places where they’re in harm’s way, we ought, at the very least, we ought to be debating this issue, we ought to be debating the policy, and we ought to be voting on it. If people don’t want to vote on it, then we ought to bring our troops home.”
McGovern has been one of the most vocal proponents of an AUMF. In June, he partnered with Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., to issue a “privileged resolution” that would have forced Obama to remove all combat troops from Iraq and Syria by the end of this calendar year absent an authorization for that force. While the resolution failed, it did allow lawmakers to debate the issue on the House floor for two hours.
There have been other unsuccessful attempts to push an AUMF. Several lawmakers, including McGovern and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., warned against fighting ISIS without authorization before the military action even began. Congress didn’t take up an authorization last year, opting instead to wait until the new Congress was sworn in in January, since Republicans would have control of both chambers. Then, Republican leadership insisted the president submit a draft authorization to spark the debate. That came in February, and though the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee held several hearings on the issue, deep divisions over the president’s language prevented any action.
Lawmakers eager to see Congress complete this constitutional duty haven’t been silent since the debate faltered. Along with the privileged resolution McGovern and his colleagues introduced, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, introduced an amendment in the annual defense authorization bill pushing for a vote on an AUMF by next spring, which failed. In the upper chamber, Kaine and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., wrote a new draft of an authorization in June. They planned to introduce it as an amendment to a State Department authorization bill in the Foreign Relations Committee, but opted against that, instead working out an agreement with Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to work together on the issue going forward.
Flake and Kaine have had several meetings with Corker and Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, on a possible AUMF. The full committee also held several private meetings to discuss the issue, according to Kaine.
Flake told RCP there had been real progress on the matter thanks to these meetings, but that progress stalled when the Iran nuclear agreement came to Congress last month; that contentious pact has taken up the vast majority of the senators’ time, as foreign relations is the lead committee on both issues.
“I think we’re closer than when we started out, but then … the Iran deal came and we had to turn out attention to that, and I think rightly so,” Flake said.
Some of the key issues that remain are the same ones that divided lawmakers, mostly along party lines, when the president sent them his draft authorization in February. There are concerns about the potential use of ground troops, geographic limitations of the fight, time limitations and whether the previous authorizations, which are still being used to justify force more than a decade later, should remain or be terminated.
Corker blamed the lack of progress mostly on the Iran deal, since there is a short timeline – just until mid-September – for lawmakers to review and vote on that agreement. Corker has been hesitant since the beginning to take up the AUMF debate, however. He has consistently argued both that the debate wouldn’t change operations on the ground and that there is concern that it could hurt the effort to fight the terrorist organization if Congress can’t reach a consensus. He said Kaine and Flake “should be commended” for pushing the issue, but that he thinks the administration is legally justified in using a previous AUMF.
“What I don’t want to do is get us off in a situation where I think everybody understands we’re all for dealing with ISIS, but to get into a debate to make it look like we’re not, like we’re divided,” Corker said.
Kaine, however, in a lengthy interview with RealClearPolitics in his Senate office, dismissed that argument. He asserted that at least 75 percent of lawmakers support military action against ISIS, and that the number could be as high as 90 percent. Given that broad support, Kaine argued it is entirely plausible that Congress could find a consensus.
“Everybody thinks the U.S. should take military action against ISIL. … How are you excused then from having the debate?” he said.
Kaine has been vocally pushing this debate since before the airstrikes even began. He and Flake both gave speeches on the Senate floor to mark the 10-month anniversary of the military action, and though Congress will be out of session on the one-year anniversary later this week, both senators told RCP they will mark the occasion.
While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has discussed the issue, there has been less action in the House. Indeed, Schiff told RCP earlier this year that if any substantive progress were to happen on the issue, it would likely happen in the upper chamber. Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, placed the blame for that squarely on Republican leadership.
“If John Boehner, if the speaker doesn’t want to do it, then I think it’s hard for the committee to do it because he’s the speaker and they’re in the majority,” Engel said. “We could try to force the issue but we wouldn’t have the votes, so I think it’s got to be a situation where the speaker is willing to talk about it and maybe horse-trade and compromise and maybe we could find an AUMF.”
That doesn’t appear too likely. Boehner, who has been a harsh critic of Obama’s strategy in fighting ISIS, was also staunchly against the president’s submission of a force authorization to Congress in February. In May, he called on Obama to “start over” and submit another draft to Congress.
The speaker’s argument is that the February draft is too narrow, restricting the commander-in-chief’s ability to wage the fight. Cory Fritz, a spokesman for Boehner, told RCP, “We have only one commander-in-chief at a time. It is unconscionable that he has offered up a plan that undermines America's ability to win his fight.”
Ultimately, most parties agreed it’s unlikely this issue will be hashed out, either in the near future because of the Iran nuclear debate or into the fall because of continuing divisions and calendar issues. But whether or not progress is made, don’t expect the group of lawmakers pushing for this debate to shy away from it. McGovern indicated that they might force another vote on a privileged resolution to withdraw all troops without an authorization, and Kaine and Flake both said they are going to continue vocally advocating for an AUMF. But as lawmakers depart Washington for a month-long break just ahead of the one-year anniversary, the issue remains dormant.
And while very little time over that break is likely to be spent debating the lack of an authorization for war, the Iran nuclear agreement will be a major talking point, led by opponents trying to rally lawmakers to defeat the agreement. Kaine noted what he labeled the irony that many members of Congress are trying to block the Obama administration’s Iran agreement while allowing him to conduct war without a congressional vote.
“The message that this Congress is sending right now is we’re going to kick diplomacy around and maybe make it hard to do, but as far as war goes, hey, who cares, let the president do that, that’s fine with us,” Kaine said, calling it a “horrible, horrible message.”