Congress appears set to sprint for the exits after voting to fund President Barack Obama’s new war on ISIS — although not by name — after rejecting a smattering of calls from lawmakers to go on record explicitly debating and authorizing it.
The get-out-of-town votes could come Wednesday, as the nation celebrates Constitution Day, the brainchild of the late-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who was long the defender of Congress’ prerogatives, especially with regard to war.
“Sen. Byrd would be on the floor demanding that the United States Senate fulfill its constitutional responsibilities, which are debate, amend and vote,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one voice in a fairly small bipartisan group pushing unsuccessfully for a full debate and votes on the authorization to use military force before going home. “This is another act of cowardice, which contributes to the low esteem in which we’re held by the American people.”
Today, the closest heir to Byrd may be Sen. Tim Kaine. The Virginia Democrat has long been an ally of the president, but he has nonetheless sharply criticized Obama — and his colleagues — for not seeking a vote from Congress authorizing the war.
“It’s the most important power that Congress has and it’s the most momentous decision that the nation makes,” Kaine told CQ Roll Call after a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on ISIS, also known as the Islamic State. He called the issue an “obsession” of his, but suggested any comparisons between himself and Byrd are “presumptuous.”
Kaine argued at the hearing that ISIS is a growing threat, but not an imminent one, so it doesn’t trigger constitutional defense powers. He also believes the 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force do not apply. He noted that while ISIS was at one time affiliated with al-Qaida, it no longer is, and pointed out that the 2002 AUMF targeted the government of Saddam Hussein, which is long gone.
“To try to take these two statutory elements and stretch them so broadly I think is a significant problem and it will create a precedent that if we go along with it in Congress we will live to regret and possibly regret very soon,” Kaine said at the hearing. “That said, I think the mission as described is reasonable, but I think Congress is necessary.”
Kaine later noted in an interview that he made the point when he was running for Senate that the president’s actions in Libya were a mistake because he lacked congressional authorization.
“I am never looking to make enemies, but it’s a principle that I feel very strongly about, and I think the president understands that and my colleagues do too,” he said.
Kaine praised Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., for saying his panel would draw up a broader authorization. He also said Congress will at least vote this week on part of the strategy — arming Syrian rebels.
But that’s not sufficient, he said.
“When you hear Gen. [Martin E.] Dempsey say ‘multiple years,’ when you hear Secretary [Chuck] Hagel use the phrase ‘war against ISIL,’ I think that the president’s definition of the mission is leading most of [us to the conclusion] that Congress has to put their thumbprint on it and sign it,” Kaine said.
But barring a last-minute epiphany by congressional leaders, that’s not going to happen before the elections.
The legislative freight train rolling down the tracks is the must-pass continuing resolution to keep the government open past Sept. 30, which provides $85 billion for “Overseas Contingency Operations/Global War on Terrorism” — the account the White House is tapping for the war on ISIS.
The get-out-of-town rush comes amid bipartisan questions about the president’s strategy — whether it be concerns about the reliability of the “vetted” Syrian rebels or what might happen if Obama’s no-boots-on-the-ground strategy fails to defeat ISIS.
The administration’s message was further muddied Tuesday, when Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Senate hearing he would recommend ground troops if needed to fight ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
That left the White House scrambling to clean up the comments, with Press Secretary Josh Earnest repeating to reporters in a gaggle that the president would not send ground troops into combat.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who has been pushing for an authorization vote and said there already are boots on the ground, chalked up the lack of a debate and votes to overly cautious lawmakers, and a White House that wants to minimize the conflict.
“You have a lot of people who are over-reading what the American people are thinking and they’re wrong,” he said, citing polls showing support for going after ISIS, with large majorities thinking the group represents a threat.
“This is a war. . . . The president tries to act like this is just another ragtag terrorist group. . . . It’s not. . . . Perhaps some politicians are misreading the people back home and are running a little bit scared and are not willing to do the right thing,” Inhofe said.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, said Kaine’s arguments, which he also made in a recent New York Times column, were “compelling.”
“If the president is concerned that he’ll come to Congress and he won’t get the authority, I think circumstances have changed,” Cornyn said. He predicted there would be a bipartisan vote to take on ISIS and said it would help secure a broader base of support for the war among the Congress and the public.
When Byrd introduced Constitution Day legislation a decade ago, the West Virginia Democrat spoke to the relationship between the president and Congress with respect to war powers.
“So Congress is the paymaster, the armorer, and the rulemaking body for the military — not the president, not the commander in chief, nor his generals. The president commands the militia only when the militia is called into action by Congress or when necessary to repel an invasion,” Byrd said in a floor speech. “The framers ensured that the people, through their elected representatives in Congress would control the military so that it could not become a tool of government repression against their own people or a way for presidents to lead the nation into foreign misadventures.”
McCain joked that Constitution Day should be Thursday instead of Wednesday, “the day when National Airport gets crowded” with lawmakers rushing to get the first plane out of town.
“The issue is just political cowardice. That’s all. No more, no less,” he said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.