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With Critics on Left and Right, AUMF Faces Uphill Battle

King, R-N.Y., arrives for the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Thursday, May 29, 2014. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
King doesn’t want limitations on Obama’s — or any president’s — ability to use military force. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Hours after President Barack Obama sent a proposed Authorization for Use of Military Force to Capitol Hill, the reviews from House lawmakers were already in: Changes will be needed.

The three-page request would repeal the 2002 AUMF for Iraq and give the president authority for the next three years to take military action anywhere in the world against groups associated with the Islamic State. It also pointedly would not authorize “enduring offensive ground combat operations” — whatever that means.

CQ Roll Call heard from a number of lawmakers expressing concern over the AUMF, either because it was overly broad or because it was too limited. They agree the AUMF is wrong. They’re just split on what’s wrong with it.

And therein lies the problem for the Obama administration: The current Congress is a collection of lawmakers with diverse but rigid views on war. Some believe a military authorization needs to ensure the job can be done, while others believe it’s the job of Congress to ensure the use of force is tightly controlled.

The administration is just hoping there’s enough lawmakers — enough votes — somewhere in the middle so they can cobble together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats to pass it.

Among the voices of Capitol Hill discontent Wednesday, it was, perhaps, Speaker John A. Boehner’s baritone that rang loudest — not because he was the fiercest in opposition, but because his opposition or support matters most.

“If we’re going to authorize the use of military force, the president should have all the tools necessary to win the fight that we’re in,” Boehner told reporters.

The Ohio Republican emphasized the draft AUMF is “the beginning” of the legislative process, one that will include “hearings, markups and, I’m sure, changes.”

“At this point,” he said, “I think we’ve got an awful lot of work to do before we get into what I’m for and what I’m against.”

Boehner said the AUMF was an important step forward to deal with ISIS. He reiterated, however, that Obama would have to make his case to the American people.

Boehner is doing what he can to avoid owning the lobbying effort for the AUMF — and there may be good reason.

Some of the most hawkish House Republicans seem to have real issues with the limitations Obama placed on the authorization. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran, said he has deep concerns over the duration limits, adding he would prefer “no timeframe.”

Putting new restrictions on war and replacing the more broadly written AUMF already in place could hurt military operations in the Middle East, say many of the most defense-minded lawmakers.

“What we don’t want to do is limit the commander in chief, or the next commander in chief,” Hunter said. “So, if this proposes more limitations, then it’s not a good AUMF.”

Rep. Peter T. King went further.

“I don’t think there should be any limitations,” King told CQ Roll Call. “As the commander in chief, the president should have the power to do what he wants. No limitations [were] put on [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt, World War II. If you’re going to use force, as commander in chief, the president should have the power to use what force he thinks is necessary at the time.”

Asked if he was sensitive to Americans weary of nearly a decade-and-a-half of war, King said “the public has to realize we’re fighting for survival.”

The New York Republican, who represents parts of central Long Island, said, “I lost too many people on 9/11.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern said he was “definitely a ‘no’” on the proposed AUMF, and probably a “no” on any AUMF — “unless I felt comfortable with what the policy was.”

McGovern said there was still no strategy to end the war in the Middle East, and a new AUMF wouldn’t change that. But it wasn’t just the overall concept that McGovern opposed. He had problems with the specific language in the authorization. Specifically, he pointed to the “enduring” ground operations clause.

“That’s not a limitation,” McGovern said. “What that is is language that’s supposed to make people like me feel better. … In real terms, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he didn’t know what “enduring offensive ground combat operations” meant.

“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?” the Washington Democrat asked. “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?”

Smith said Congress would be working on that “linguistic challenge,” but either way, it would be a challenging vote.

“I think it’s going to be tough to pass,” Smith said, “because you’re going to have some people who want it to be broader.”

The administration acknowledged Wednesday that the fuzzy language in the AUMF is no accident. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the language was “intentionally” unclear.

The president needs flexibility to deal with future contingencies, Earnest said.

But without any real checks, some lawmakers feel they are functionally authorizing ground troops. And the appetite in Congress for approving another war is low.

“The last one I voted for, I bought the lie from [President] George [W.] Bush,” said Republican Walter B. Jones Jr. of North Carolina, a senior member of the Armed Service panel.

“We’re spending millions and billions of dollars all around the world, and we got programs being cut for seniors and children right here in America,” Jones said. “Does that make any sense?”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.


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