WASHINGTON -- Congress was torn Thursday over whether President Barack Obama actually has the authority to broaden a war against the so-called Islamic State. And with elections coming, and the itch to campaign becoming more difficult to ignore, ducking a vote on that authority until at least mid-November is a distinct possibility.
"At this point I will have to say it’s quite likely," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Huffington Post, when asked if he thought Congress would wait until after the elections to vote on authorizing airstrikes in Syria. "That could change because there is definitely growing momentum behind the idea that Congress needs to vote on this, that the prior authorizations are insufficient. But I’m not sure that will be enough given the compressed time schedule."
Senior Republicans echoed Schiff, saying granting the president new war authority was not at the top of the docket for now.
"That's not been a part of this discussion so far," said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)
For the White House, whether Congress votes on authorization before the election or after -- or even at all -- is partially a moot point. During a national address on Wednesday announcing an escalated war campaign, Obama said he would use his existing authority to ramp up airstrikes against the Islamic State and appealed to Congress for $500 million to facilitate the training and arming of Syrian rebels battling the extremist group in Iraq and Syria. The latter part of his strategy is the only one that White House officials say Congress needs to approve.
As for embarking on a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar military operation, administration officials said they welcome Congress' imprimatur, to the extent it shows unity and adds legitimacy. But officials also told lawmakers in classified briefings on Thursday that it's not required, because they believe the operations are covered already under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Congress passed in 2001 to target al Qaeda. Most lawmakers -- even the skeptics -- seemed ready to let the matter slide until the lame-duck session.
"As they say, they [administration officials] rely on the authorization to go after bin Laden and al Qaeda. That's their justification of authority," said Rogers, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who will shepherd through the financial request.
"The president said last night he has the authority to do bombing as he is doing now in Iraq, and in Syria," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Should Congress not act quickly (or at all) to authorize the use of force in Syria, it won't have operational consequences, since the White House believes it already has authority to act. But it would set a precedent for legislative-executive-branch relations that some lawmakers and lawyers warn may be deeply damaging.
"Congress becomes a diminished institution, subsequent presidents will claim even greater war powers, and Congress will only have itself to blame," Schiff said, when asked the price for inaction. Pressed on whether lawmakers would suffer reputational damage for tending to their elections before voting on war, Schiff added: "Congress is already held in such low regard there’s not much more room to go."
Despite those stakes, there was little apparent unity among lawmakers on how to move forward. Several have publicly demanded a vote. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and others have set about drafting an explicit authorization for strikes in Syria. But several legislators said it doesn't matter if they gave Obama a new war declaration at all.
"I'm not getting wrapped up in this. If he wants us to vote, I'll vote. If he doesn't want me to vote, I won't vote," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "I just want him to do something."
"The bottom line issue is that ISIS is a serious threat, it's a threat to the world, it's a threat to Americans, it's a threat to our homeland," said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), ranking member of House Intelligence Committee. "We have to do what we have to do to pull together and stop them and smash them."
Feeding the disagreement over whether Obama needs additional authorization for airstrikes in Syria is dispute over the administration's logic for why no authorization is needed. Lawmakers were fairly dubious in public (more so in private) that the 2001 resolution targeting "those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001," applies today. White House press secretary Josh Earnest made the case on Wednesday that because ISIS was an offshoot of al Qaeda, it fell under the 2001 resolution. But lawmakers in briefings challenged administration officials on that point, noting ISIS spawned itself three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and now is a rival of al Qaeda.
The resolution "is stale and it's a stretch to argue that that is the statutory framework for proceeding here," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
Still, the administration has defenders on this front, the most vocal from the hawkish wing of the opposition party.
"You can make an argument ISIS used to be associated with al Qaeda, it divorced itself from al Qaeda, still continues to go after and harm Americans," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq veteran. "So that's the position the administration has taken. I think they're able to do it through that."
When does the resolution cease to exist? asked Graham. "When radical Islam ceases to exist."
Lingering over the entire debate is the failure of the White House to secure authorization for Syrian airstrikes last year. Then, Obama claimed he had the authority to act, but wanted Congress to weigh in first. Lawmakers heard a deafening "hell no" from constituents, leaving the president with only bad options (cancel the mission or go back on his word). He was fortuitously presented with an off-ramp: a Russian-brokered deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons in exchange for holding off on the strikes.
Perhaps wary of reliving that moment, the White House showed no signs Thursday of backing off its insistence that no new authority is needed. Aides did note that the 2013 mission going after Syrian President Bashar Assad is fundamentally different than tackling a terrorist group that blurs geographical boundaries.
Whether Congress also wants to avoid a reprisal of the 2013 debate is a lingering question. The answer, so far, seems to be yes.
"I know without question the debate is going to occur," said Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). "The election, unfortunately, is on people's minds more than the war, which it shouldn't be."
Rangel, a Korean war veteran who remains unconvinced ISIS poses an imminent threat, offered a reason for the delay: Lawmakers like him are "scared to death."
"I know so often that we start off with 1,000 boots on the ground, and then we have some pilot captured," said Rangel. "The president, to some, has effectively closed to door by the 'under no circumstances would there be boots on the ground.' That's crap," he added. "Because whether we're talking about Vietnam, Korea, we've always started off with limited participation militarily."
BEFORE YOU GO
How to vote
Vote-by-mail ballot request deadline: Varies by state
For the Nov 3 election: States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. Each state has its own rules for mail-in absentee voting. Visit your state election office website to find out if you can vote by mail.Get more information
In-person early voting dates: Varies by state
Sometimes circumstances make it hard or impossible for you to vote on Election Day. But your state may let you vote during a designated early voting period. You don't need an excuse to vote early. Visit your state election office website to find out whether they offer early voting.My Election Office
General Election: Nov 3, 2020
Polling hours on Election Day: Varies by state/localityMy Polling Place