Lawmakers of both political parties say Congress is likely to authorize further U.S. military action against Islamic State, yet the political maneuvering is certain to be contentious and drawn-out.
As Congress begins its broadest debate on the use of military power in more than a decade, Republicans and Democrats are pulling the proposal President Barack Obama submitted Wednesday in opposite directions.
“It’s going to be a hard needle to thread, it really is,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the chamber’s third- ranking Republican. However, Thune predicted Congress would ultimately pass an authorization.
“The president will probably lose a lot of people on the left; there are probably some Republicans who don’t think it goes far enough,” Thune said. “But in the end, I think everybody realizes it’s important enough that the Congress be heard on that.”
Obama’s fellow Democrats say they’re concerned that the proposal could grant the president too much authority to put U.S. ground forces in harm’s way for too long. On the other side, some Republicans say limits on Obama’s authority to commit ground forces might tie the president’s hands too much.
In the Senate, which Republicans control 54-46, support from at least six Democrats will be needed to pass the measure. Complicating matters, changes sought by Democrats to further restrict the president might jeopardize Republican support.
“We have not really taken a task like this on in a long, long time,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. “It’s not easy.”
The same dynamic is at play in the Republican-led House, where members of each party have raised similar objections and Democratic votes probably will be needed to pass the measure.
Among the Democrats seeking changes to the reauthorization proposal is Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who predicted Wednesday that Congress would pass some version of Obama’s plan.
“My gut tells me he is going to succeed because there is an overwhelming bipartisan consensus in both houses that ISIL is a threat, and the United States needs to take that significant step of military action to counter the threat,” Kaine said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. ISIL is another term for Islamic State.
Obama’s request to Congress said Islamic State has committed “despicable acts of violence” and that the extremist group would threaten the U.S. if not confronted.
The proposed three-page resolution would limit the authorization to use military force to three years and would prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
In a letter accompanying the text, Obama told lawmakers that the authorization would provide flexibility to conduct combat ground operations in limited circumstances, such as rescuing personnel, collecting intelligence to support airstrikes or using special operations forces to target Islamic State leadership.
Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, said that while the White House draft is the result of “hours of conversations” with lawmakers, the administration won’t be surprised if lawmakers decide to make changes.
“This reflects a starting point in conversations,” Earnest said.
Language on ground forces is at the center of concerns raised by Obama’s own party.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said she has “significant questions” about whether the limits on ground troops are strong enough.
“I don’t know what the word ‘enduring' means,” she said Tuesday. “Enduring is not in the eyes of the beholder. Enduring has to have a clock to it.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said after the draft was released that he had “serious concerns” about the proposal.
“It provides overly broad, fresh authority for the deployment of U.S. ground forces in combat operations in Iraq, Syria, and any other countries in which ISIL or its affiliates may be operating,” Van Hollen said. He said it “leaves in place indefinitely the blank-check authority” granted by a 2001 authorization to conduct operations against al-Qaeda.
Seeking to assure wary Democrats, Obama said in his letter that the resolution “would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations,” Obama said.
Republicans, meanwhile, have said the plan may not give Obama enough flexibility.
“The president’s proposal will weaken the authority of the president to defeat ISIS by limiting, not expanding, our ability to roll back and destroy the violent Islamic extremists that threaten our nation,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican.
“I will not give consent to a measure that ties the hands of our military commanders or takes options off the table,” McCaul said.
A further sticking point is the authorization’s geographic scope, which Democrats say should be limited, while Republicans are calling to give Obama a wide berth.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said the proposed resolution should include authority to attack forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We can’t protect young men that we are training to fight against Bashar Assad” under the authorization, McCain, an Arizona Republican, told reporters.
The draft proposal doesn’t include geographic limits and grants Obama the discretion to use armed forces as he “determines to be necessary against Islamic State” or “associated persons or forces.”
Administration officials and some lawmakers say such flexibility is necessary because Islamic State is attracting recruits in Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere beyond Iraq and Syria.
“If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland,” Obama said in the letter to Congress.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said his panel will begin hearings later this month.
“It’s in our hands now and we have the opportunity to make changes,” Corker said in an interview.
Republicans say Obama hasn’t presented a credible strategy for defeating Islamic State, something they say will be the subject of hearings before any authorization is approved.
The president “wants to dismantle and destroy ISIS. I haven’t seen the strategy yet that I think will accomplish that,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Wednesday in Washington.
“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 said.
Obama campaigned for office vowing to cease the open-ended warfare that grew out of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and led to the invasion of Iraq. The draft he sent to Congress would repeal the 2002 resolution that authorized the Iraq war.
The 2001 authorization, which Obama has cited as the legal underpinnings for the campaign against Islamic State, would remain in place for now. Obama said while the draft doesn’t address the 2001 resolution, he wants to work with Congress “to refine and ultimately repeal” that authorization.
The resolution cites Islamic State’s professed intention to seize more territory, its mass executions of Muslims and threatened genocide against religious and ethnic minorities.
The resolution also blames the group for the deaths of five Americans held hostage by Islamic State, including aid worker Kayla Mueller, whose death was confirmed by the U.S. Tuesday.
White House aides tried to rally Democratic support Tuesday on Capitol Hill. The effort wasn’t entirely successful, with even Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada suggesting the White House still had work to do.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, called Obama’s proposal a “serious and thoughtful draft” and said Congress should work to pass an authorization “narrowly tailored to the war against ISIS,” another name for Islamic State.
Islamic State, which has amassed territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, beheaded U.S., British and Japanese journalists and burned a Jordanian military pilot alive in a cage.
The U.S. began a bombing campaign against Islamic State on Aug. 8. The U.S. and other coalition members have conducted 1,298 air strikes in Iraq and another 1,055 in Syria through Monday at an average cost of $8.4 million a day, according to Commander Bill Urban, the budget spokesman for the Pentagon.
With assistance from Billy House, Mike Dorning, Margaret Talev, James Rowley, Peter Cook and Kathleen Miller in Washington.