Republican Leaders Divided Over Declaring War On ISIS

Paul Ryan thinks it's a good idea. Mitch McConnell, not so much.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) seems open to passing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force for the fight against Islamic State terrorists.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) seems open to passing a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force for the fight against Islamic State terrorists.
Tom Williams via Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday that it would be good for U.S. foreign policy if Congress voted to authorize the war against self-described Islamic State terrorists ― putting him at odds with his Senate counterpart, who has rejected the idea.

During an interview at Politico’s Playbook Breakfast, Ryan said it’s Congress’ constitutional responsibility to declare wars, and that debating and voting on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force would send the signal that the U.S. is united in the fight against ISIS. That’s the same argument President Barack Obama has been making, even as he keeps using a sweeping 2001 AUMF to take military action against ISIS without congressional sign-off. Many feel he’s stretched that 9/11-era AUMF to its limits, Obama included.

“It would be a good sign for American foreign policy to have a new one updating our AUMF to declare our mission, with respect to ISIS,” Ryan said. “I think that would be good for putting America in an offensive posture.”

He added, “Congress is the one who declares war. This is Congress’ responsibility.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that he’s opposed to spending time debating war authorization. He said Obama has no strategy for defeating ISIS ― and since he’s already got the authority under the 2001 AUMF, why bother debating the issue?

“I personally would not find it very appealing trying to come up with an authorization for the use of force in this particular way,” McConnell told reporters. “I think that’s one of the reasons most members have been reluctant to suggest that’s a good idea.”

A big reason lawmakers are reluctant is because they just don’t want to take a tough vote. Some got burned from their past votes for the Iraq War, so if they can avoid taking another war vote, they will. The White House even sent them a draft AUMF proposal in February, but they couldn’t agree on its provisions, so it went nowhere.

In the meantime, the U.S. has been at war with ISIS for nearly a year and a half without a debate in Congress. Since August 2014, the U.S. has led more than 8,700 air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and spent more than $5.2 billion.

Ryan and McConnell do agree on thing: the real challenge is crafting a new AUMF that can pass. Democrats want parameters on the president's use of U.S. ground combat troops, on the scope of the war and on the time limit of an AUMF. Republicans, meanwhile, don't want to put any restrictions on the president's ability to go after ISIS.

It's not a partisan issue, though. Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) unveiled an AUMF together and last week, a bipartisan duo in the House introduced the same bill in their chamber. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has an AUMF. So does Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Nearly three dozen House members also wrote to Ryan recently urging him to schedule an AUMF debate.

Ultimately, it comes down to McConnell and Ryan deciding if they want to make the issue a priority or not. Ryan may be the White House's best hope.

"The question is, can we write an AUMF the president will sign where he's not going to handcuff the next president, and can we get consensus on how to do that?" Ryan asked. "That's what we're going to figure out now."

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