President Obama’s proposal for the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is dead in the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared on Monday.
The California Republican said Obama’s draft authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, could not win the 218 votes needed to pass the lower chamber, and suggested key GOP-led committees could draft an alternative.
Administration officials have held up the U.S.’s counterterrorism efforts in Yemen as a model for success in battling Islamic extremists, though ongoing fighting there prompted the U.S. to close the U.S. embassy and evacuate military personnel.
McCarthy’s declaration, which was unscripted and came during his first pen-and-pad with reporters as House majority leader, means it’s now unlikely that Obama’s war powers measure will even get a vote on the House floor.
If Congress doesn’t pass an AUMF, Obama will continue carrying out military airstrikes against ISIS extremists using an outdated authorization passed by Congress in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Asked Monday about McCarthy’s remarks, White House press secretary John Earnest said he was surprised that lawmakers want to inject themselves into U.S. nuclear talks with Iran but won’t take up Obama’s AUMF request.
“[W]e see Congress eager to weigh in and advocate for the role that they should have that would prevent diplomacy, while at the same time you hear members of Congress who are unwilling to take any steps that would constrain the president's ability to wage war,” Earnest said.
“It seems to me they might have their priorities a little backwards.”
Obama sent his new war powers measure to Capitol Hill in early February, only to have it pronounced dead on arrival by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Republican hawks argued that language restricting “enduring offensive ground combat operations” could tie the hands of military commanders. Liberals griped that that language could lead to an open-ended ground presence in Middle East once again.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had spent months calling on Obama to send Congress his war request. But once it was delivered, Boehner, too, dismissed it as too restrictive.
With lawmakers facing little pressure from voters to act on a war powers resolution, the push for an AUMF appears to be going nowhere in Congress.
Aside from a few House and Senate hearings, which raised more questions about Obama’s request than delivered answers, little work has been done. Congress turned its attention to other security matters, including funding for the Homeland Security Department, increased defense spending in the fiscal 2016 budget and legislation to give lawmakers a greater say in negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Still, McCarthy said that House committees, including the Intelligence and Foreign Affairs panels, would be taking a look at possible bipartisan AUMF alternatives in the coming weeks.
“Let’s look at the committee process,” the majority leader said.
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a fellow California Republican, said his panel isn’t shutting the door on Obama’s request just yet. Members of both parties on the committee are reviewing the proposal “in-depth,” he said, and they still want to hear testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
“The administration has a lot of questions to answer. Thus far, this bipartisan examination has included a number of hearings and briefings,” Royce said in a statement. “After this committee review, we’ll look at next steps.”
—Martin Matishak contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 5:39 p.m.