Senators struggle with ISIS war bill
© Greg Nash

More than nine months into the U.S. military operation against ISIS, senators are struggling to find a path forward on overcoming deep political divisions to authorize the war.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerRNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing MORE (R-Tenn.) and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinThe Secure Act makes critical reforms to our retirement system — let's pass it this year Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death Senate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters MORE (D-Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, are pledging to try to find common ground on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), but they’re also downplaying expectations.

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Cardin said it was “a stretch” to even say that the committee was in the beginning stages of working toward an agreement on an AUMF.

“We really are just in the preliminary stages,” he added. “We have not at all reached any sort of tentative outline.”

This week also marked the third month since President Obama handed over a long-sought draft of an AUMF. While senators quickly labeled the administration's proposal as dead on arrival, they’ve made little if any progress on their own measure.

The stalemate underscores how, perhaps more than any other issue before the committee, the AUMF has created deep political and philosophical divisions, including between Corker and Cardin.

Cardin, like other Democratic senators, doesn’t believe the administration should be using previous war authorizations to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“I think it is important for Congress to pass an authorization for military force,” he said. “I think it is not right to be using a 2001 authorization.”

Corker, however, suggested that he disagrees.

“I think today they’re operating in a legal fashion,” he told reporters during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, though he added that they're “certainly close to the line.”

The Tennessee Republican went on to add that an AUMF would have “zero effect” on current operation against ISIS.

“It’s going to have zero effect on anything that’s happening on the ground,” he said. “The AUMF is an intellectual exercise, okay? It’s not something that’s producing a result.”

Even if the committee’s two top members do manage to find common ground, they’ll also have to convince the other 17 members of the Foreign Relations Committee, which includes two Republican presidential contenders: Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTikTok's leader to meet with lawmakers next week GOP senators unveil bill to expand 'opportunity zone' reporting requirements Three dead, several injured in Pensacola naval station shooting MORE (Fla.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Democratic congressman calls for study of effects of sex-trafficking law McConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' MORE (Ky.)

Paul introduced an AUMF last year that would require Congress to reauthorize the war annually. It also would place significant restrictions on the use of ground troops. 

Rubio, however, argued earlier this year that an AUMF shouldn’t include limitations.

Corker said Republican reservations about the administration’s war strategy, mainly in Syria, is another issue.

“Republicans are reticent to look at what is a limiting AUMF. They’re concerned about embracing that, because then it would appear that you are embracing a non-strategy in Syria,” he said.

He added that while the administration is running a train and equip program to bolster Syrian opposition fighters to battle ISIS, “they haven’t asked for authorization to protect these same groups against Assad’s barrel bombs.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a member of the committee, suggested that he would back passing an AUMF but doesn’t believe that Obama is “fully committed."

“Maybe when we elect a new president that’s actually serious about these issues, the Congress will be able to take that up and offer a true authorization of military force to someone who’s actually committed to the goal,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats and the administration are divided about the use of ground troops. Senators on the committee want use the AUMF to specifically ban the use of ground combat troops, something administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have resisted agreeing to.

Cardin said that while he’s had “ongoing discussions with the administration,” he added that he doesn’t think the AUMF “could pass in the form they gave it to us.”

Outside the committee, it’s not clear if there’s much interest in looking at the AUMF.

Senators don’t have a timeline for trying to come up with an agreement, and given the state of play it appears increasingly likely that the United States could hit the one-year anniversary of its airstrikes against ISIS in August without the Senate authorizing the war.

Asked about the possibility, Sen. Tim Kaine said, “I think that would be a big problem.”

The Virginia Democrat has been at the forefront of the push, both publicly and privately, to pass a new AUMF. Pointing to the recent bipartisan support for Iran legislation, he suggested that was optimistic that the Senate would be able to find a way forward.

“There's been a lot of discussion with the leadership of the committee,” he said. “We've been trading language back and forth. ...I do think there's a sense of urgency on it now.”

Cardin offered a more tempered assessment, suggesting that while he and Corker are committed to trying to tackle the AUMF they have “very difficult issues to resolve.”  

“We have not found a common ground yet,” he said. “We recognize that there's huge hurdles.”