WASHINGTON ― The guy who’s been saying for months that he doesn’t want to deal with declaring war on the self-described Islamic State surprised everyone a couple of weeks ago and unveiled a bill to give the president sweeping new authority to fight the group.
Not only that, but the guy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), used a procedural rule to bypass committees and tee up the bill for a floor vote at any time.
What’s going on here?
It’s called strategery. It’s also called nothing is actually happening.
McConnell has no plans to give his bill a vote. He also didn’t introduce it so GOP senators running for president could sign onto it and look tough on national security, though Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is one of its co-sponsors. McConnell’s real aim is to call President Barack Obama’s bluff in demanding that Congress pass a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Obama has been pressing lawmakers on the issue for more than a year. Since August 2014, he’s been relying on an old AUMF from 2001 as his legal authority for launching strikes against ISIS without congressional signoff. Nobody particularly likes that he’s using a 9/11-era war authorization for a new fight ― some say it’s illegal ― but that’s how the military campaign will plod along unless Congress passes a new one.
The problem is that many lawmakers just don’t want to vote on dicey matters of war. They also don’t agree on what a new AUMF should look like. Democrats, including Obama, want parameters on it, like limits on geography and the use of U.S. ground combat troops. Republicans don’t really want any limits on it. Throw into the mix that GOP leaders aren’t making this a priority issue and you’ve got a standstill on Capitol Hill, something the White House regularly complains about.
Here’s where McConnell comes in. He doesn’t want to spend time debating an AUMF, but it’s pretty frustrating getting called out over and over again for failing to address the issue. So he introduced a bill that Obama can’t possibly support: It would give the president unlimited war powers, with no restrictions on duration, geography or use of U.S. ground troops. It wouldn’t repeal the 2001 AUMF or another unexpired AUMF from 2002 that authorized the Iraq War. McConnell’s proposal is, in essence, the AUMF of all AUMFs.
McConnell’s move puts the White House in a defensive position. If Obama wants an AUMF so badly, would he accept the GOP leader’s proposal, which would get the job done but dramatically redefine the concept of war without end? McConnell’s thinking is no, so why not dangle that AUMF out there as a reminder that Republicans are ready to act, on their terms.
Two senior GOP aides confirmed this is McConnell’s strategy.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart wouldn't say if that's what's really going on. But he said if the GOP leader were to move forward on any AUMF, it would be one that, not surprisingly, looks like his.
"If the president decides to put forward a serious plan for defeating ISIL, and seeks an AUMF that doesn’t tie the hands of this or any future commander in chief, this is the type of AUMF that would be effective and that the leader would support," Stewart said. "If the president moves in that direction and an AUMF is to be considered, it would be the intent of the leader to consider an AUMF through the regular order, working with Chairman [Bob] Corker and the Foreign Relations Committee."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest didn't have much to say about it in a press briefing last week.
"Well, I haven’t looked at the actual text of the AUMF, but we believe that Congress has, for too long, put off their fundamental responsibility to pass the authorization to use military force against ISIL," Earnest said.
For the handful of senators who have been pleading for action on a new AUMF -- don't forget, Congress hurts itself by not acting since it's ceding its constitutional rule in authorizing wars to the president -- they're disappointed that McConnell's move is politics when it could be a starting point for a meaningful debate. So far, the U.S. has launched more than 10,000 airstrikes and spent more than $5.8 billion in the war on ISIS, with no new authorization.
"Even with an authorization pending on the Senate calendar, there’s an unwillingness to actually vote," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) grumbled. "It doesn’t make any sense, and for a body I believe recognizes that ISIL is our enemy and must be defeated, it’s unacceptable."
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