The largest decision a country can make is how and when it goes to war. President Obama on Wednesday will layout his long-awaited strategy for confronting militants in Iraq and Syria in a major White House address. But across Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress — just back from a month-long vacation — is struggling to decide if and how it wants to wade into the debate over ISIS.
What’s clear so far is that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has Americans worried, enough that nine out of ten in a recent poll said they consider the group a serious threat to the vital interests of the United States. In preparing to inform the public what the U.S. will do to counter the threat — even if it isn’t a direct threat to the homeland — Obama sat down with NBC’s Chuck Todd to lay the groundwork for Wednesday’s speech. “I’m confident that I have the authorization that I need to protect the American people,” Obama said in the interview that aired Sunday. “And I’m always going to do what’s necessary to protect the American people. But I do think it’s important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy-in, to debate it.”
But some members of Congress aren’t quite so sure that “buy-in” is enough. “I think we are beyond Article II in that territory,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, told ThinkProgress in a phone call. So far, the has argued that Obama has the authority to launch airstrikes in Iraq without direct Congressional approval under his Constitutional power as commander-in-chief. Schiff disagreed, adding that it’s “important that Congress do more than approve the funding necessary for military operations but we also formally authorize the president to use the force that he’s using now and certainly to go beyond it.”
What that authorization would look like is still up in the air. Last year, when preparing for potential military strikes against Syria, the White House sent a draft resolution to the Hill for lawmakers’ consideration. For now, it’s uncertain whether the administration plans to send its own proposals on how to structure an AUMF against ISIS to Congress. “We’re not going to get ahead of the President’s consultations with Congressional leaders this afternoon or his speech tomorrow,” Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in an email to ThinkProgress when asked.
That leaves three proposals, known as an Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), currently circulating around Congress for the members to potentially vote on. The first — and by far the broadest — is under consideration in the House, where Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) has introduced a bill that one analyst referred to as “insanely broad.” Rather than placing limits on the ability of the White House to conduct war, Wolf’s bill lists no less than four terrorist groups for the administration to target, as well as “any other emerging regional terrorist groups that share a common violent extremist ideology with such terrorist groups, regional affiliates, or emerging terrorist groups.” On top of that, there’s no time limit for this authorization, giving it the ability — much like the 2001 AUMF against al Qaeda that’s still in effect — to remain law until Congress positively acts to turn it off.
That leaves two options in the Senate. One is from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, that was first reported in the Daily Beast on Tuesday. Under Inhofe’s bill, the president is still given a wide range of latitude to act, just against a much smaller list of targets. Obama would be granted authorization to “use all necessary and appropriate force in order to defend the national security of the United States against the threat posted by [ISIS].” The “Authorization for the Use of Force Against the Organization Called the Islamic State” would also demand that the Obama administration provide frequent updates to Congress, first in the form of a strategy presented 15 days after the bill’s passage, then a written report on the progress in implementing that strategy every 90 days thereafter.
The proposal from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) is by far the most constrained of the options on the table. “This is a barbaric group that’s committed heinous acts of torture and murder, and we have to go after them now – not only in Iraq, but in Syria as well,” Nelson said in a statement. Based on his bill’s provisions, the president would still have the ability to use “appropriate force” against ISIS “in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the people and interests of the United States and our allies.” But it specifically bars Obama from deploying rotational ground troops, cutting off the potential of another massive invasion force as seen in 2003. Nelson’s bill also is the only one of the three to include a sunset clause, forcing the expiration of the legislation three years after passing. The White House has been pushing that number of years as how long the fight against ISIS will potentially last.
But even that time frame isn’t quite good enough for Schiff, who has been struggling for years to reduce the scope of the 2001 AUMF. Nelson’s draft also provides, along with the other two bills, the ability to strike out against ISIS in Syria, a prospect that members of Obama’s own administration have said may be necessary to fully degrade ISIS’ ability to launch attacks. “That would be longer than I’d like to see in an authorization,” he said of the sunset clause. On the prospect of strikes into Syria, Schiff said eventually “they may be necessary, but I don’t think we’re there yet. We don’t have the same capability on the ground to compliment airstrikes to make them effective that we do in Iraq.”
Schiff is still mulling whether or not he’ll introduce his own version of an AUMF. But for other members of Congress, despite many referring to ISIS as a major crisis, it seems there’s little chance that a vote on something as contentious as using force will come up before the midterm elections. “It’s an election year,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) said in the New York Times. “A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”
That strategy must look pretty decent to many members of Congress who are preparing for the slog of the campaign as November approaches. After weeks of hitting Obama for stating that there wasn’t yet a strategy for confronting ISIS in Syria, now that Congressional leaders are preparing to meet with Obama on Tuesday ahead of his speech, top Republicans are taking a wait and see stance. “What I’m hoping to hear from the president today is a strategy that goes after ISIS and destroys them,” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) said at a news conference on Tuesday morning. “We have a very serious problem and what we need is a strategy, and until there is a strategy, there is no reason to talk about any of the specifics because I don’t know how they fit into the broader strategy.”
Even once that strategy is outlined, the odds of an AUMF actually passing during the brief window Congress has left remain relatively slim. “I think the real issue is scope,” one Congressional aide told ThinkProgress. “While some members are concerned about giving the President too much power, others are worried about not addressing the full scope of the problem. Under Article II, it appears that the President has the authority to act, at least in the short-term, and so we are not likely to see congressional action before the elections.”