Congressional resistance to President Obama's new war powers request has ballooned, with a growing number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle vowing to oppose it.
Conservative hawks are attacking from the right, saying the authority Obama requests would too tightly restrict the Pentagon. Liberal Democrats are attacking from the left, contending the limits are too loose to preclude another prolonged ground war.
“Congress, since World War II, has never failed to take an opportunity to duck responsibility when it comes to military deployment," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who opposes Obama's proposal. “If past is prologue, I don't think it'll change this time, either.”
The issue has flipped the partisan politics of recent years on their head, with Republicans — who are suing the White House over alleged executive overreach — wanting to grant the administration more power. Democrats, who have backed Obama's executive actions, want to apply more formal checks on their ally in the White House.
“Congress cannot vote on good intentions,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told CNN Thursday. “We're voting on what's written on the page of the law.”
From a practical standpoint, a failure of Congress to enact Obama's proposal, known as an authorization for use of military force (AUMF), would have little immediate effect. The president has long-maintained that an AUMF passed in 2001 already grants him the authority to take on ISIS, and U.S. forces have done so in both Iraq and Syria since last summer.
Politically, however, Obama's new proposal shifts the burden on Congress to weigh in formally on parameters governing the conflict after months of vocal criticisms — largely from GOP leaders — that Congress has been left out of the debate.
Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerRyan delays committee assignments until 2017 Lobbying World 'Ready for Michelle' PACs urge 2020 run MORE (R-Ohio) said Thursday that Obama “did the right thing” in asking Congress for the new authority, but suggested the proposal is far too limiting to win his support.
“The president has tied his own hands and wants to tie his hands even further with the authorization that he's sent up here,” Boehner said in a press briefing. “The president should have the flexibility to fight this war wherever it is. As simple as that.”
At a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday to examine Obama's proposal, a number of Republicans echoed Boehner's concerns.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said he wants all military options on the table so ISIS fighters will “sleep with one eye open because they fear” U.S. special forces might sweep in and put “a round of lead between their eyes.”
And Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) called for an AUMF that “gives maximum flexibility to our generals.”
“I can't imagine Franklin D. Roosevelt standing up before the American people and say, ‘Here's what I'm not going to do against the Japanese’ ” Salmon said.
Many Democrats are no more pleased with Obama's proposal — but for decidedly different reasons.
The liberals contend a provision to bar “enduring offensive ground combat operations” is too vague and could allow for U.S. troops to be sent into the field.
“We really need much more specificity,” said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.).
The Democrats are also voicing concerns that the proposal, while repealing the 2002 AUMF that authorized military force in Iraq, leaves the 2001 AUMF intact. Many are hoping to retire the 2001 resolution on the same three-year timeline included in Obama's new ISIS proposal.
“Otherwise, you're spending an awful lot of time trying to design the framework for the [ISIS] effort, sort of trying to arrange the front door while you're leaving the back door wide open,” Van Hollen said.
Other Democrats are criticizing the absence of geographic restrictions, while still others are wary that the enemies targeted in the proposal — defined as ISIS militants “or associated persons or forces” — are too broadly defined.
“This is like whack-a-mole,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), another opponent of Obama's proposal.
Amid the debate, congressional leaders in both parties say they're hopeful the sides can reach a compromise and get a new authorization bill to Obama's desk.
“I would hope that we could find common ground to have bipartisan support for how we protect and defend the American people,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday.
Still, all sides are quick to acknowledge the high hurdles they face.
“This,” said Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), “won't be easy.”
— Kristina Wong contributed.