Obama's war request runs into a brick wall

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President Obama’s request that Congress authorize military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was met with skepticism from both parties on Wednesday, raising questions about Capitol Hill’s ability to pass a war measure.

The divide is largely centered on language prohibiting the use of “enduring offensive ground combat operations” against ISIS.

Democrats say this does too little to limit the White House from committing ground troops to the fight, while Republicans say the restrictions could handcuff the military.

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How those views can possibly be reconciled isn’t clear, even with Obama using his bully pulpit to call on Washington to unify against what he said was a “barbaric” terrorist network.

Obama characterized the legislation, known as an authorization for use of military force (AUMF), as the product of “a sincere effort” to consult with both Republicans and Democrats.

“I’m optimistic that it can win strong bipartisan support and that we can show our troops and the world that Americans are united in this mission,” Obama said.

Yet that optimism seemed ill-founded given some of the comments about the AUMF from lawmakers.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he was concerned the bill did not “give our military commanders the flexibility and authorities they need to succeed and protect our people.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would not “give consent to a measure that ties the hands of our military commanders or takes options off the table.”

The chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), said military experts and commanders must have the “agility and authority they need to successfully confront” ISIS. 

“Today’s request by the president does not meet that criteria,” he said. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch 

McConnell (R-Ky.) gave a more measured response.

“Because Congress must meet its responsibility to decide whether our military should use force, the Senate will review the president’s request thoughtfully,” he said. “Individual senators and committees of jurisdiction will review it carefully, and they’ll listen closely to the advice of military commanders as they consider the best strategy for defeating ISIL.”

Only a handful of Democrats, including Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.) and freshman Rep. Ted Lieu (Calif.), openly opposed the request. Lieu said that while ISIS’s actions should be confronted, Obama had not made the case it “represents a direct, grave threat to our nation.”

But a number of other Democrats in the House and Senate expressed reservations.

“A lot of people think it’s still a little bit too broad,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the main Democratic proponent of an AUMF in the House, said he believed some key aspects of the proposal “must be narrowed further.”

The language banning “enduring offensive ground operations” triggered concern from Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).

“I don’t think that’s an established [term]. It sounds pretty open-ended to me,” he said.

The White House on Wednesday acknowledged that the language was intentionally ambiguous, so as not to place “overly burdensome constraints” on the president. 

The request would limit the authorization for three years and would repeal a 2002 law authorizing the invasion of Iraq. It would keep in place a 2001 bill approving operations against al Qaeda and its affiliates, which Obama has so far used to justify his bombing campaign against ISIS.

The authorization would not impose any geographic restrictions on the fight and would allow the administration to go after ISIS and its allies.

The White House has been under pressure to send a request for authorizing the war to Capitol Hill. It signaled Wednesday that it is open to making changes to the measure, even as it emphasized the request was made after intense consultations with both parties.

“I believe this resolution can grow even stronger with the thoughtful and dignified debate that this moment demands,” Obama said.

Yet in moving the debate to Congress, the president is effectively passing a hot potato to congressional Republicans, who now must decide how to craft a measure that can move through both chambers and be signed by the president.

Winning the authorization would give a boost to the administration and send a strong signal to the international community.

But it will not make a substantive difference in Obama’s abilities to wage the battle against ISIS. That means lawmakers have little national security incentive to take a tough vote. 

Obama, for his part, stressed in his comments that his request will not send ground troops into combat — something the White House wants to emphasize given its focus on crafting the president’s legacy as ending U.S. wars, not beginning them.

“The resolution we’ve submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria,” Obama said. “It is not the authorization of another ground war, like Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Updated at 8:43 p.m.