WASHINGTON -- A surprise move by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is driving action on an issue that many in Congress, and the White House, were hoping to punt into the next year: war.
Paul tried to force a vote on legislation declaring war against Islamic State militants during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday. He offered his measure as an amendment to an unrelated water bill about to get voted out of the committee.
After hearing loud resistance from fellow Republicans, who urged more time for debate on the matter, the Kentucky senator pulled his proposal. But he had achieved what he actually wanted: a promise from the chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), to schedule a broader debate on the issue next week, along with a vote on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) on Wednesday.
"I'm more than willing to withdraw my amendment," Paul said during the hearing. "I want more time, not less time, on this. The reason for bringing this up on the water bill is to force the issue."
The committee's plan is to bring in a top administration official on Monday, ideally Secretary of State John Kerry, to testify on what the administration would like in a new AUMF crafted around the battle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), which has already been underway for four months and has cost $1 billion. The hearing would be followed by a classified briefing, a markup on a proposed AUMF and a Wednesday committee vote.
Congress is set to adjourn for the year on Thursday, meaning it's "a near impossibility," as one Senate Democratic leadership aide put it, that the full Senate would stick around to debate a new AUMF. But the fact that the committee will begin moving one forward is more than anyone was expecting to happen.
"I've had people ask me, 'You're not actually leaving Congress without addressing ISIS?'" said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who noted that he was "conflicted" about whether to squeeze in a debate before adjourning. "It appears now this is the only place, the only time, we may even discuss it before the new Congress comes in."
Paul's push for a debate comes amid growing bipartisan frustration on Capitol Hill over the lack of direction from the White House in the fight against the Islamic State. Not only was Menendez ready to let Paul's proposal receive a vote, but he, too, had a war authorization amendment ready to go.
Their frustration stems from the fact that, four months into the battle, the White House still hasn't submitted draft AUMF language to Congress, which would typically kick off the process for passing war authorization legislation. Menendez has tried to hold hearings with top officials to get a sense of the parameters that President Barack Obama would like in a new AUMF, but the administration hasn't provided key witnesses like Kerry or outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Obama has said he welcomes a new AUMF, but maintains he doesn't need one to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, pointing to existing legal authority under 2001 and 2002 military force authorizations. But some lawmakers argue that a 13-year-old AUMF doesn't cover a new, long-term military campaign in different countries.
For lawmakers who have been demanding action on an AUMF this year, next week's committee hearing isn't the grand debate they were hoping for. But they'll take it.
"We will now have the opportunity to engage in a meaningful, transparent debate on the U.S. military mission against ISIL," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "We owe it to our service members and the American people to have this debate and take this vote before adjourning for the year."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), also on the committee, said he was "heartened" by Menendez's decision to move forward on an AUMF.
"We would do a disservice to the American people if we simply gave the executive branch a blank check authorization that allows our country to get dragged into an open-ended engagement with no clear end or objectives," Murphy said. "I look forward to a serious debate next week on this critical issue for our country."