Washington – Debating and deciding what authority President Obama has to conduct a war against an Islamic group known as ISIS was once a hot topic among lawmakers, including those representing Connecticut on Capitol Hill.
But post-election there’s little sense of urgency, and little pushback on GOP demands that the issue be handled by the next Congress, which will be controlled by Republicans.
Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and John Larson, D-1st District, both urged lawmakers to return to Washington, D.C., during Congress’ summer break to debate the war against ISIS, or ISIL.
“Debating a new authorization for the use of military force to govern the efforts to combat ISIL is a critical responsibility of the Congress,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District. “Speaker (John) Boehner should allow that debate to happen before Congress adjourns for the year, as I—and many of my colleagues—have been seeking for months.”
But now that they’re back in town, many of Courtney’s colleagues aren’t as anxious for a quick vote on the issue. Boehner insists it will have to wait until the next Congress, when Republicans increase their power.
Because of a crowded lame-duck session and the lack of a consensus on what shape the Authorization on the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, should take, many lawmakers are happy to let the debate and vote wait until then.
President Obama announced the day after the Nov. 4 elections that he will ask Congress to approve continued air strike on ISIS in Syria and Iraq and may ask for authority to broaden and escalate the fight.
Members of Congress say an AUMF is needed because the president is conducting a war under authorizations Congress gave former President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2002 that limited hostilities to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, not ISIS.
“We should not continue to use an overly broad authorization for the use of military force, which was passed in the aftermath of 9/11 to justify sustained military action,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District.
Rep. Jim Himes, said “the 2001 AUMF was limited to al Qaeda and its affiliates that were complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and I am deeply skeptical of the notion that it applies to ISIS.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, agrees.
“We have a responsibility to debate the scope and scale of any protracted military engagement and should hold a vote on the matter,” she said. “We need to clearly define our objectives in the region and ensure we are not dragged into an open-ended conflict.”
The president says he has authority to continue operations, but is asking Congress for new authorization for political purposes, to show the world Congress stands with him in the fight.
The National Security Council is working on suggestions to give the Pentagon on what the Obama administration will ask of Congress in an AUMF request, but the timeline is unclear.
When the president announced he would send a request for authorization to Congress, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, one of the strongest critics of the U.S. campaign against ISIL, said he was “encouraged by President Obama’s desire to work with Congress.
“We should have taken up this issue before Congress left for recess . . . As I’ve said for months, a debate in Congress over the president’s proposals for military action is integral to our constitutional responsibility and should happen as soon as we get back to Washington. Too much is at stake to delay the debate any longer,” Murphy said.
But Congress returned to Washington and a delay appears inevitable.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, hopes a vote can be held during the next six weeks of the lame duck session.
“There is a need for the Congress to consider an AUMF both to make sure the president has legal authority and popular opinion support,” he said.
Debate ahead over ground troops
Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the head of the House Armed Services Committee, said he supports giving the president broad authority, even allowing for ground troops.
But there are sharp differences on what lawmakers can accept, with some GOP members eager to authorize the use of ground troops and most Democrats – and some Republicans – strongly against that idea.
A GOP aide said House Democrats are “stuck” because Obama will offer an AUMF that is not likely to do what they want him to do, which is include limitations on the scope and cost of the conflict.
Connecticut’s Democratic lawmakers are likely to vote against any AUMF that is open ended, authorizes ground troops or extends the war beyond Syria and Iraq.
Courtney, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was the only member of the Connecticut delegation to vote for a bill last summer that allowed the Pentagon to spend money on arming and training Syrian rebels to help in the fight against ISIS.
“Whether I will support an AUMF depends on how strongly and how narrowly it’s composed,” Blumenthal said.
Voting for war could bite Republicans too.
They are now flush with midterm success, but GOP members’ 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq was used against them four years later, when the party lost both the House and Senate.