Obama’s war powers request meets resistance from Democrats

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Skeptical House liberals want to tighten language in President Obama's proposal for war powers against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

While the Democrats are hailing the president's decision to seek new congressional authority in the battle against the terrorist group, they are concerned that his resolution is vague and fear it could bog the country down in another lengthy ground war.

The criticism centers on language in the proposed resolution, known as an authorization for use of military force (AUMF), that prohibits “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

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In a closed-door meeting with White House Counsel Neil Eggleston Wednesday morning, the Democratic critics voiced concerns that the provision is too nebulous to guarantee that U.S. troops won't be sent to the field in Iraq and Syria.

"There's a lot of concern about what that phrase means," Rep. John YarmuthJohn YarmuthA case for the Yarmuth-Price resolution Subcommittee clears bill on cap for phone, internet subsidies Lawmakers split on cap for internet, phone subsidies at hearing MORE (D-Ky.) said as he left the meeting. "I don't think that's an established [term]. It sounds pretty open-ended to me."

Eggleston told the Democrats that the "enduring" language was needed to empower the administration, for example, to send in ground troops to recover a downed pilot, Yarmuth said.

"And then the point was made, 'Well, we already have the authority to do that,' " Yarmuth said.

"I would prefer language that was a little bit more definitive," he added. "If that could be tightened up, I think I could be supportive."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) also voiced concerns after the meeting.

"A lot of people think it's still a little bit too broad," Nadler said. "It sounds [like] it to me."

Many Democrats are also critical that Obama's proposal, while repealing the 2002 AUMF that preceded the Iraq invasion, keeps in place the 2001 resolution that launched military operations in Afghanistan.

Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffHouse passes policy bill for intelligence agencies Sunday shows preview: Sanders opens up about battle with Clinton Overnight Defense: Terrorism suspected in EgyptAir crash; McCain details funding plans MORE (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that Obama's new proposal "must be narrowed further" to include a sunset of the 2001 authorization.

"Without one, any sunset of the new authorization will be ineffectual, since the next president can claim continued reliance on the old one," Schiff said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also raised concerns about the 2001 AUMF, suggesting Congress should phase out the Afghanistan authorization on the same three-year timetable the administration wants for the ISIS fight. But she stopped short of saying that provision should be included as part of the new ISIS resolution.

"That just is another complication," she said. "I believe the White House believes, 'Let's do one, [and then] let's do the other.' "

Yarmuth said lawmaker concern over the absence of the 2001 sunset was "widespread" in Wednesday's caucus meeting.

Eggleston told the lawmakers Obama wants to sunset the 2001 AUMF on a separate track, Yarmuth said.

"The White House wants to do it; it's just a question of process," Yarmuth said. "They don't think it should be part of this, but they do want to sunset it. I don't think there's any real dispute there."

Some Democrats have also been wary that the three-year window means the new war powers will extend to the next White House.  

"The problem is, is that this authorization goes for three years, not a year and a half, and so it will extend a year and half, at least, into the next president’s term," Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyWeek ahead: Pressure builds on Zika funding Dems pressure Obama on vow to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees Trump aide: Taco tweet meant ‘in the spirit’ of Cinco de Mayo MORE (D-Conn.) told CNN Wednesday.

Pelosi downplayed those concerns, saying she's hopeful the fight against ISIS doesn't last nearly that long.

"I would hope that the period of time … would be much longer than it takes to deal with ISIL," Pelosi said. "Let's just get this job done."

In crafting its new war powers proposal, the Obama administration is walking a fine line between Republicans who don't want to tie the military's hands in the fight against Islamist extremists, and liberal Democrats wary that the operation could evolve into an entrenched commitment along the lines of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Those dynamics could complicate the debate for Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, who want to support Obama but could face a groundswell of opposition from their liberal-leaning caucus.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched another set of criticisms Wednesday, arguing that the new proposal lacks both geographic limitations and a clear objective.

"If Congress grants any new authority for the use of military force, the authority must be significantly more specific and limited than the authority the administration has proposed,” Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel for the group, said in a statement.

Pelosi emphasized the need to strike a balance between ensuring national security and checking executive overreach.

"We hope to have bipartisan support for something that would limit the power of the president but nonetheless protect the American people," Pelosi said.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, acknowledged "some healthy skepticism in our caucus," but praised Obama for volunteering to put limits on his war powers.

"This is the first time … [since] I've been here in the House [that] we actually have a president who has asked for a limitation on their ability to conduct operations overseas," Crowley said.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee has scheduled a Thursday hearing on Obama's proposal.

— This story was updated at 12:23 p.m.