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Congress Shrugs at Obama’s War Request

Corker said Obama already has the authority to fight ISIS. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Corker said Obama already has the authority to fight ISIS. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

In his Sunday address, President Barack Obama called on Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State. But the response from top congressional Republicans was essentially: Authorization for what?  

They say the president already has the authority to fight ISIS, and has not presented any new strategy that would warrant a new authorization. Congress has discussed the topic for months, but remains split over whether such authority is necessary and what it would look like if it is.  

“What does he want authorized?” Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked in a phone interview with Roll Call Monday. “That’s the question on everybody’s mind.”  

The president’s call in his televised, Oval Office speech on Sunday, Stewart said, only left him with more questions, such as whether the president will submit a new proposal.  

“I’ve been holding conversations with members, and if we can get an [Authorization for the Use of Military Force] done that ensures our commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat ISIS, I want to move it,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement to Roll Call on Monday. “But ultimately, it is going to be up to President Obama to lead.  The administration already has the authority it needs, yet it sat paralyzed for more than a year while ISIS expanded.”  

The president submitted a draft of the authorization in February, but that proposal has not moved in Congress due to a lack of consensus. Democrats are mostly concerned it would lead to increased military involvement, while many Republicans are concerned it would constrain future presidents.  

McConnell, like a number of other lawmakers, did not refer to the president’s new call for the authorization in his statement regarding the president’s speech. A Senate Foreign Relations Committee aide told Roll Call Sunday night that the White House had done no outreach on the topic before delivering his remarks.  

On MSNBC last week, Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said, “I do believe we have the authorization already on the books.”  

Ryan did indicate he was exploring the issue further, though, and trying to find a way to give the military the necessary tools without limiting future presidents.  

A Ryan spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on what steps are being taken to look into a new authorization. But Ryan is facing some pressure from his rank and file.  

On Nov. 6, a bipartisan coalition of 35 lawmakers, led by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., wrote to Ryan urging him to schedule and debate an authorization as soon as possible. The letter also included some members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. On Monday, spokespeople for McGovern and Cole said they had not yet received a response from Ryan.  

One Republican in the Senate has also been pushing for Congress to act on an authorization. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., introduced a bipartisan authorization with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in June, and said in a CNN interview Monday that Congress should act on it.  

“If people want something different, then use it as a starting point, but let’s just get something done to authorize,” Flake said. “Our allies need to hear it. Our troops in the field need to know that we’re behind them, that we speak with one voice. And our adversaries need to know that they do as well.”  

“Leadership in both parties is reluctant to bring this forward,” Flake later added. “And members are reluctant to get themselves on the record, apparently. It should be no excuse.”

Flake told CQ Roll Call Monday night he was planning to talk with Corker soon about his legislation. Though he said there was increasing pressure to authorize force against ISIS, he was not hopeful it would advance soon.

“I don’t think we’re at that point where we’re going to go,” Flake said.

Flake’s Arizona colleague, Armed Services Chairman John McCain, said: “I would like for him to send one over, but I will not support anything that curtails his ability to act as commander in chief.”

McCain said he was supporting Sen. Lindsey Graham’s AUMF, which he introduced last week.

Asked if he saw any prospects that an AUMF would get done this year, McCain said, “Not particularly.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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