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Congress Gets to Dust Off Its War Voting Powers

Sen. Tim Kaine, left, and House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff want to debate a war authorization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tim Kaine, left, and House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff want to debate a war authorization. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

For the first time this decade, Congress is set to have a full-fledged war debate. The White House wants pure kabuki with no practical effect; lawmakers, most of whom have never voted to send men and women into harm’s way, will have to choose whether to go along.  

President Barack Obama is intent on doing what he wants either way — as he already has in his undeclared war on the Islamic State terror group for months, with Congress on the sidelines. If Congress doesn’t act, he’ll continue to wage war using the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force following the 9/11 attacks as his pretext, even though the group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) didn’t exist when it was passed and Obama has called for its reconsideration.  

The measure the White House sent to Capitol Hill Wednesday wouldn’t touch that 2001 resolution, making congressional action on it mostly symbolic — though fraught with political implications for the 2016 elections and beyond.  

Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, hope to change that as the authorization winds its way through the committees. Such lawmakers face daunting odds trying to cobble together a coalition to roll back or sunset the president’s authority to wage war.  

“When the new authorization expires three years from now, the next president can simply fall back on the old 2001 authorization,” Schiff complained.  

He said that wasn’t just an issue for him, but for House Democrats in general.  

Appearing with Schiff at a Wednesday news conference, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said revising the 2001 authorization should be a priority. Still, he said he could vote for the new AUMF if there’s a “commitment” to addressing the earlier resolution.  

On the other side are hawks such as Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y.  

“I don’t think there should be any limitations,” King told CQ Roll Call. “As commander in chief, the president should have the power to do what he wants.”  

Obama himself sought to have it both ways — calling for an end to “endless war,” but not ending the endless 2001 war authorization.  

“I do not believe America’s interests are served by endless war or by remaining on a perpetual war footing,” he said.  

The new authorization “is not the authorization of another ground war like Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said. But, he said, he wanted flexibility to go after terrorist leaders because, “I will not allow these terrorists to have a safe haven.”  

Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest could not name a single thing that would change if Congress adopts Obama’s resolution.  

Instead, Earnest said, it was about the “principle” of Congress fulfilling its duties under the Constitution, as well as sending a sign of resolve.  

The AUMF proposal is “intentionally” fuzzy, Earnest acknowledged. Its vague prohibition on “enduring offensive ground operations” is aimed at giving the president flexibility without having to come back to Congress. He would also still have the 2001 AUMF to fall back on.  

Earnest refused to define “enduring.” That’s a problem for people such as Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.  

“I don’t think there is a clear definition,” Smith said. “I mean, how do you say you don’t want full-scale combat operations? I mean, because there’s going to be troops there. There’s troops there now! You can’t say no troops. But how do you limit what they do?”  

Obama acknowledged it was conceivable the war to destroy the Islamic State would extend beyond the three years he is seeking authorization for.  

The time limitation isn’t intended as a “timetable” for victory but to prod Congress to address the issue at the start of the next president’s term, said Obama, who as senator voted for a timetable to end the Iraq War.  

Earnest said Obama still “eventually” wants to repeal the 2001 AUMF.  

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn stressed that Congress can do what it wants, including changing the 2001 AUMF.  

“We can write the authorization any way that Congress wants to,” the Texas Republican said.  

“I think it’s a healthy collaboration because I don’t think you should ever send American troops into harm’s way without the support of a bipartisan vote of Congress and the American people,” he said.  

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Congress will work on the resolution and urged Obama to sell it to the American people.  

Passing it isn’t a foregone conclusion. Congressional hawks might balk at restrictions. Doves might complain about the lack of geographic restrictions or limitations on the president.  

And the debate will unfold months after the United States has been at war with the Islamic State. Congress’s only action to date has been to fund the war via the catchall “Global War on Terrorism” account.  

Regardless of the practical implications of the AUMF debate, the political ones could be profound, particularly for would-be future presidents such as Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and independent Bernard Sanders of Vermont. All will have a chance to raise their profiles and show off their foreign policy chops to voters with presidential campaign season starting to kick into gear. War votes have been defining ones for presidential candidates.  

Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton. Or Obama.  

Niels Lesniewski, Humberto Sanchez and Matt Fuller contributed to this report.

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