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A Silent Majority on War

In the eyes of some lawmakers, if Congress were a member of the military it would be judged derelict in its duty. But on Capitol Hill, politics often trumps duty.

In this case, the issue at hand is the battle against the Islamic State, which raced across two milestones in the span of just nine days last month: The first American serviceman was killed in the fight against the jihadis during a raid in Iraq on Oct. 22, and the White House announced on Oct. 30 that it was deploying a small group of special forces to Syria.

In the two weeks that followed, three attacks that authorities have tied to the Islamic State laid bare the terrorist group’s ambition and international reach. In Egypt, a suspected Islamic State bomb brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard; in Beirut, Lebanon, two suicide bombers killed more than 40 people; and in Paris, a bloody rampage of shootings and suicide bombings killed 129 people and wounded 350.

The news has resurrected a familiar and, for many lawmakers, undesirable topic on Capitol Hill — the authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State. If U.S. servicemen are dying on Middle East battlefields again and more troops are on their way, then shouldn’t Congress have its say?

In a word, yes. Is it likely to make its voice heard? Don’t count on it.

There are a host of reasons at play, but one of them is perhaps paramount: Nobody sees any political windfall from taking that vote.

“It’s just political timidity. There’s not much to be gained personally for any member in voting on this war,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s such a mess, it can only come back to haunt you.  But we do have an institutional responsibility here. We are sending Americans into harm’s way and we can at least do our job.”

Another lawmaker who falls into the Congress-should-do-its-job camp is Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

“Is it possible to take this vote in an election year with everything swirling around? I don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty simple. I think the Constitution puts that responsibility on our shoulders. I think we’ve got to take the vote.”

Thornberry’s counterpart in the Senate, Republican John McCain of Arizona, brushes aside any sense of responsibility for coming up with a new authorization to use force. The blame, he said, lies with President Barack Obama.

“I have a desire to do it, but I want to hear from the commander in chief what he wants to do,” McCain told CQ Roll Call. “It has to start with the White House. There’s just too much division here.”

Legally, it doesn’t actually have to start with the White House. Congress has the power to draft its own AUMF. It also could work from the proposal put forward by Obama in February.

When the president presented his idea for a new AUMF, Democrats wanted stronger restrictions placed on the use of ground troops, while Republicans wanted greater latitude to conduct whatever operations were deemed necessary.

Congress batted around ideas for a few months before ultimately dropping the matter after no clear path forward emerged.

That was fine by the White House, which has continued its operations against ISIS on the basis of the AUMF passed after the 2001 attacks, which granted authority to go after al-Qaida.

But now — more than a year into airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; after the death of Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler during a raid near Hawija, Iraq; and following the White House decision to send up to 50 commandos to Syria to help advise local forces there — the need for a new AUMF has been dragged back into the spotlight.

Unfortunately, for now at least, the fundamental dynamics that prevented legislation from advancing earlier this year remain.

Following the attacks in Paris, Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., on Tuesday renewed their longstanding calls for Congress to debate and vote on a new declaration of war against the Islamic State.

Speaker Paul D.Ryan indicated he has zero interest in tackling a new war authorization anytime soon, saying Tuesday the United States has the authority under the current AUMF and that Congress can “revisit” the issue later.

For lawmakers such as Schiff, continually kicking the AUMF can down the road is not the answer.

“I do think that the addition of American special forces into Syria, the increasing tempo of our air campaign, and the very tenuous legal basis for any of this under the pre-existing authorizations, it really makes it incumbent on Congress to act,” Schiff told CQ Roll Call. “We are completely derelict in our responsibility.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of CQ Weekly.

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