Tim Kaine's Mission: Pushing for War Authorization

Tim Kaine's Mission: Pushing for War Authorization
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Saturday marked one year since the beginning of U.S. airstrikes against the terrorist group ISIS. Sen. Tim Kaine used that anniversary to raise awareness of the fact that Congress has thus far failed to exercise one of the legislative branch’s most important constitutional duties: the power to declare war. But last week wasn’t the first time the Virginia Democrat has attempted to spotlight this issue. He’s been a leading voice among a small group of lawmakers unsuccessfully pushing Congress to debate authorizing the war against ISIS, and though they haven’t yet succeeded, Kaine is not backing off.

On Wednesday, he gave a floor speech harshly criticizing senators for leaving Washington for the annual August recess without debating the issue of war, delivered a speech at the libertarian Cato Institute about the lack of an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), and penned an op-ed in the Washington Post, in which he lamented that lawmakers' inaction sends a message to the world that "Congress is indifferent to what's happening" -- despite a daily expenditure of $9.4 million and the loss, so far, of seven U.S. service members' lives.

These are just the most recent efforts by Kaine to raise the issue. He also penned an op-ed in the Post in June 2014, two months before the military action began, arguing that President Obama needed to come to Congress for a vote, and he’s made numerous speeches on the Senate floor pushing for it.

“I will say nothing in my time in the Senate has more surprised me than senators and House members want to weigh in on everything under the sun but they do not want to weigh in on a clearly defined constitutional duty to declare war,” Kaine said in a lengthy interview in his Senate office last month. “It just stuns me.”

Kaine’s interest in this issue actually dates back to 2002, when he was lieutenant governor of Virginia. In his speech at Cato, Kaine said he remembers driving near Williamsburg that October, listening on the radio as Congress debated authorizing the Iraq War. The thing that stuck him was that the Senate was debating the issue just weeks before the midterm elections that year. His concern was heightened when Republicans were victorious in the midterms, but the U.S. didn’t invade Iraq until the following spring. Kaine said he was “profoundly disturbed” by the timing.  

“It seemed to me to be entirely un-kosher, if that’s a word, to try to put a debate about war right in front of the midterm to try to affect the midterm outcomes,” he explained. “Hey, it was political genius, it did affect the outcome of the midterms. That was one of the best midterms a president has ever had two years in, but it was an entirely cynical exercise to time it in a way that was completely artificial. That got me really into [thinking] … I don’t necessarily know what the answer should have been, but it’s gotta be done better than this.”

More than a decade later -- after serving out his term as lieutenant governor and four years as Virginia’s governor -- Kaine entered the Senate in 2013 with similar concerns about the way in which Congress authorizes war. In fact, one current Senate aide told RCP their job interview with Kaine after the 2012 election became a conversation about war powers and Congress’ role in military action.

And at a time when the United States has nearly continuously been in some form of conflict in the Middle East, the issue remains highly relevant. Kaine pushed hard to have Obama go to Congress after Syria was found to have used chemical weapons in 2013, rather than rush to respond militarily. That ultimately led to an authorization for force in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Syria agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpile, averting the need for military action -- an outcome Kaine views as a victory.

The issue once again came to the forefront when the United States began bombing ISIS in 2014 and Kaine has continually, if unsuccessfully, tried to spur legislative action. He introduced an authorization for the use of military force against ISIS in September 2014, a month after the campaign began. But because of the midterm elections that November, the issue didn’t get any action in Congress until December, when the committee, of which Kaine is a member, took up and passed an AUMF that included several provisions Kaine proposed. But because Republicans were poised to take over the upper chamber in January, the AUMF didn’t move beyond the committee.  

In the new year, GOP leaders put pressure on Obama to send a draft version of an AUMF to Congress to kick-start the debate. That happened in February, but there were deep divisions about the president’s language – Democrats generally viewed it as far too expansive, Republicans as far too restrictive – and the issue, despite some debate, went nowhere. In June, at the 10-month anniversary of the war, Kaine, along with Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, introduced a draft of an authorization that they viewed as a bipartisan starting point to reignite the debate.

Kaine acknowledged some of the difficult details of an AUMF, including concerns over the use of ground troops, any geographic or time limitations, and what happens to the previous AUMFs passed in 2001 and 2002 that are still being used to justify military actions. But he viewed the proposal with Flake as a way to show that there can be bipartisan agreement on the issue.

The two senators have had meetings with Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and ranking Democrat Ben Cardin, and the full committee has had several private meetings in recent months to discuss the issue, according to Kaine. Flake told RealClearPolitics in an interview that he thought there had been progress, saying the two sides are closer than when they started out. But the full attention of the panel and the rest of the Senate turned to the nuclear agreement with Iran last month, leaving little time to debate a war authorization, and even less interest in doing so.

Given the roadblocks and difficulties in pushing this issue in the first year of the war, it’s an open question as to whether it can ever be achieved, even though some predict the fight may last well into the next president’s term. Kaine is confident it can be done, though not necessarily through the means he hopes. Asked what could change congressional unwillingness to take up the issue, he painted the bleak scenario of lawmakers stirred to action by some horrific act of torture taken by ISIS against a member of the U.S. military.

“You only have to think about what they did to a Jordanian pilot that they captured,” Kaine said, referencing the officer who was burned alive in a video made public by ISIS.

“As soon as something really bad happens, I guarantee you Congress will act. I absolutely guarantee you Congress will act. But the question is, should we wait for that? Should we wait and then finally, after something really bad happens, say, ‘Okay, I guess we have to take this up now. I guess we can’t hide under our desks anymore.’ No, we ought to be sending the message to the people who are serving there now -- these 3,500 people, they’re far away from their families and they’re risking their lives and this is challenging -- we ought to send the message to them right now that we support them.”

The idea of sending a message of support to the troops is one that Kaine says lies at the heart of the AUMF issue. There are arguments to be made about the constitutional role of Congress in declaring war and the dangerous precedent this situation sets in terms of letting the president wage military action without lawmakers’ approval. In the end, though, Kaine says it comes down to supporting the troops.

The lack of debate is “all an unwillingness to be held accountable, but the men and women who are serving are accountable and they may be accountable to the ultimate degree in terms of being wounded or killed, and we’re kind of ordering them to do that,” Kaine said. “As much as the constitutional argument matters to me, what really matters to me is this sort of moral question of can we order somebody to risk their lives about a military mission if we’re not willing to debate, vote and say that the military mission matters?”

He has used several different opportunities over recent months to make this point, including during a July Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the confirmation of Gen. Joseph Dunford to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Kaine asked the general, “Do you think it would be received positively by the troops, who we are asking to deploy far from home and risk their lives, if Congress were to have a debate and authorize and affirm the U.S. mission against ISIL?”

Dunford said yes, citing two reasons. “What I think our young men and women need, and it’s really all they need to do what we ask them to do, is a sense that what they’re doing has purpose, has meaning and has the support of the American people.” He added that it would also be a sign to adversaries and allies that the U.S. is united around fighting ISIS.

Despite the clear degree of frustration Kaine has with the lack of action on an authorization, he has yet to step beyond traditional procedure in Congress. He has pushed for votes in committee, made speeches on the floor, met with fellow senators and introduced legislation. Some in the House have taken more radical steps, including introducing a “privileged resolution” in June that would have forced Obama to remove all troops fighting ISIS in the Middle East by the end of this year, absent a congressional authorization for the war. The vote failed, as was expected, but it forced a two-hour debate about an AUMF on the House floor. Kaine has not pushed anything so radical, but said he is going to keep his options open in terms of how he can force some action.

“I very much want to work in good faith within the system,” he said, adding that he has the upmost respect for Corker and Cardin, the leaders of his committee, and that both have agreed with him that Congress ought to debate this issue. Yet Corker has consistently argued that an authorization would have no effect on operations on the ground, and could be potentially damaging if Congress debates the issue but fails to reach a consensus. Corker’s hesitation to take the issue up is one of the key factors preventing Congress from moving forward, given his role chairing the relevant committee. Despite that, Kaine continues to work with the Tennessee Republican to push for a debate, and he was clear that he doesn’t plan to let this fall by the wayside.

“I’m not going to let go of this,” he said. “I haven’t been quiet about it and I’m not going to be quiet about it and I’m going to continue to look for ways to raise this. Maybe all I can do is make people feel guilty about the fact that they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. And if I can only do that, I will do that. But I will continue to look for other ways to raise this.”

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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