Senate Dems frustrated by colleague's push for ISIS vote

Sen. Tim KaineTim KaineOvernight Healthcare: Biggest abortion rights win in 25 years | Justice Kennedy again steps to the left McConnell tees up House Puerto Rico bill Abortion ruling roils race for the White House, Senate MORE’s (D-Va.) outspoken push for a vote to approve military strikes in Iraq and Syria has cranked up tensions with fellow Democrats who worry it could hurt them on Election Day.

Vulnerable Democrats fighting for their political lives are frustrated that Kaine is pressing for a debate on giving President Obama new war powers at a time when the commander in chief has become a political liability for them.

“Asking anybody to take that vote within two months of an election is just stupid. Why would you put people in that position?” said a Senate Democratic aide.

A vote to authorize Obama to strike at Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria beyond the 60-day window set out by the War Powers Resolution would be a de facto referendum on the president, according to another aide.

“I think it’s dumb,” said a second Democratic aide. “The less the president is in the news with anything right now, the better.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Kaine’s response to critics is that voters elected him and other senators to make tough decisions, not avoid them before an election. 

“I don’t think anybody should just be in this job for the politics. They should be in the job to do the right thing,” he told The Hill in an interview Tuesday.

“The notion of, ‘Well, we don’t want to cast a hard vote before a midterm because it might be unpopular,’ that’s the job we volunteered for.”

An aide to Kaine said that not a single Senate Democrat has raised concerns directly with her boss about a possible vote. 

Kaine believes granting the president the power to wage war is the most solemn responsibility Congress has. It certainly should not be casually handed off to the executive branch, he asserts.

He also argues that it is important to achieve public consensus behind military action so that American troops know they have the support of their country.

“Maybe being from Virginia and Virginia is such a military state and we have so many military families, I just feel like you owe it to those who serve to do this the right way,” he said.

Kaine pressed his case on Monday, arguing that Obama may not have constitutional authority to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) because it is uncertain the group poses an imminent threat to the United States.

“I am calling for the mission and objectives for this current significant military action against ISIL to be made clear to Congress, the American people, and our men and women in uniform. And Congress should vote up or down on it,” he said in a statement.



His stance has left some Democrats scratching their heads. Kaine is known for his savvy and they say he should recognize the political risk. 

Kaine is also known to be personally close to the president. Obama considered tapping him as his running mate in 2008 and later appointed him to head the Democratic National Committee.

Sources close to Obama, however, say he respects Kaine’s stand on the issue and predict it will not affect their relationship.

One senior administration official noted that Kaine has long advocated for revising the War Powers Resolution to further involve Congress. 

A Democratic strategist said the White House might not object to the push for a vote because "it gives Obama cover" by highlighting the reluctance of lawmakers to take responsibility for airstrikes.

Some Democrats wonder if Kaine is trying to raise his national political profile to bolster his stock in the 2016 “veep”-stakes.

“When he’s the most outspoken senator on it, it does raise his profile, but I think he’s motivated by principle,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

Pete Brodnitz, who served as Kaine’s longtime pollster, said the Virginia lawmaker "has always been really clear about having this position.”

"It's a thread that runs through his politics, this sense of accountability," Brodnitz added. "You couldn't see it as opportunistic."

Kaine says there is an upside for the administration in consulting Congress on the issue. 

“When you come to Congress, it forces the president and the team to be disciplined about, ‘Here’s what's at stake and here’s what we need to do, now let’s debate that,’” he said.

Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in January to strengthen the “consultative process” between Congress and the president, according to a statement from Kaine’s office.

In May, along with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and other Democratic colleagues, he introduced a bill to repeal the 2002 authorization for use of military force against Iraq.

One Democratic aide noted, however, that McCain, who also favors overhauling presidential war powers, has not argued as forcefully for congressional authorization of military strikes because such a debate would lessen the likelihood of military intervention.

Congress was poised to vote down the authorization Obama requested a year ago to launch limited strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad. He was spared an embarrassing defeat by the last-minute intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kaine, however, believes Obama’s decision to ask Congress for permission to strike Syria last year motivated Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpile.

“The president’s willingness to come to Congress about that … it changed the Russian and Syrian equation,” he said.

While Kaine has long advocated for requiring greater congressional oversight of military actions, Democratic strategists warn that liberal voters are very leery about airstrikes in Syria and Iraq because of concern it could lead to the redeployment of ground troops.

“This kind of thing hurts turnout, which is not good,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, told The Hill earlier this month.

She said then that voters worry “we’re getting bogged down again” and feel “we can’t be the policemen of the world.”

In an interview Tuesday, Lake said voters’ opinions might have changed since the grisly beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS militants.

“It may have changed those opinions, but they may have not,” she said.  

Allies describe Kaine, who serves as chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs and a member of the Armed Services panel, as a deep thinker on foreign policy issues. He spent a year as a missionary in Honduras in the early 1980s and holds a senior lecturer’s post at the University of Richmond’s law school.

“He’s an intellectual and he’s incredibly thoughtful. I don’t think there’s anything here other than he thinks this is what should be required and that this is an abdication of our responsibility. I don’t think this is political,” said a Democratic aide.

The aide said the political danger posed to vulnerable Democrats is slight because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the head of messaging and floor strategy, are unlikely to schedule a tough political vote in September.