The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee is set Tuesday to offer President Obama a nearly blank check for waging war against ISIS everywhere in the world. The irony is that Obama isn’t asking Congress for formal authorization.
Sen. James Inhofe will introduce a formal congressional authorization Tuesday for the use of American military force against ISIS using any means, including using boots on the ground, and in any country, including Syria. A copy of the legislation obtained by The Daily Beast follows the requirements of the War Powers Resolution, a law the White House is attempting to skirt and Congress is struggling to enforce.
Inhofe’s ‘‘Authorization for Use of Force Against the Organization Called the Islamic State’’ would grant Obama authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force in order to defend the national security of the United States against the threat posed by the organization called the Islamic State (or ‘IS’), formally known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as well as any successor organization.”
Inhofe wants to get the resolution filed before Obama’s Wednesday speech in which he has pledged to clarify the U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS, a strategy administration officials told reporters this week would involve three stages and take years to accomplish, probably more time than Obama has left in office.
The president and his staff have made clear that they don’t feel they need congressional authorization to go after ISIS, but leaders in both parties disagree, and a long list of congressional figures believe the president must come to Congress for explicit authorization within 60 days of when he began striking ISIS in Iraq, on August 8.
The White House is using legal maneuvers, such as filing a new report under the War Powers Act for each individual set of strikes, to undermine the 60-day deadline and avoid any congressional vote of approval for Obama’s ISIS war. There has been consultation with the Hill about the strikes but no cross-branch discussion about a legal authorization to underpin them.
Even Inhofe agrees with Obama that the president has the authority to act against ISIS under Article 2 of the Constitution, but the Oklahoma senator thinks his resolution could put pressure on the president to act and give him added flexibility to expand the ISIS war. The bill would require the administration to report to Congress about its ISIS strategy, a widely popular request since Obama acknowledged, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
There’s little chance the Senate will vote on any authorization bill for Obama’s ISIS war before the election, because the administration doesn’t want it, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn’t interested in it, and just two weeks of legislative days remain before the next congressional recess.
But after the election, the issue could come up again in the lame-duck session, in which the Defense Authorization bill is sure to move. Inhofe, as the GOP head of the committee that controls that bill, is in a good position to influence its contents. Other senators also could try to add ISIS language to the defense bill before it passes in December.
Lawmakers who have written ISIS war authorization bills include Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Frank Wolf. A team of senators including John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy, and Bob Corker have been working on a broader replacement for the 2001 authorization for the use of military force Congress passed after al Qaeda perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. That effort could be combined with the plans to assert Congress’s role in overseeing the current anti-ISIS mission.
But not all Senate Republicans support holding a vote on authorizing Obama’s ISIS war now. Graham told The Daily Beast on Monday it might do more to hinder the president than to help him.
“What if [Obama] comes here and [Congress] can’t pass it?” he said. “That would be a disaster. And what if you put so many conditions on it that it makes any military operations ineffective? That’s what I worry about.”
In his speech Wednesday, Obama is expected to lay out a three-stage strategy for eventually defeating ISIS. The first stage would be continuing the airstrikes in Iraq that are going on now. The second would begin soon and involve arming and training Iraqi forces, Kurdish forces, and maybe some Iraqi Sunni tribes. The last phase, which would take three years, would involve combating ISIS inside Syria, its primary base.
Speaking Sunday to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Obama made clear he doesn’t think he needs Congress’s sign-off for any of that. “I do think it’s important for Congress to understand what the plan is, to have buy-in, to debate it,” he said.
Obama did seek congressional authorization when he decided to strike Syria in September 2013, before cancelling the strike at the last minute. "While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective," the president said at that time.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that there might not be a whole lot in the speech that administration officials haven’t said before.
“Well, the speech isn’t written yet. So I don’t want to get ahead of describing a speech that hasn’t been written yet,” he said. “Well, I wouldn’t rule out that there might be something new in the speech.”