A year into the military operation against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), there is little sign lawmakers are any closer to passing legislation authorizing the war.
Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the first airstrikes against the terrorist group and lawmakers have nothing to show despite President Obama offering a proposed authorization for the use of military force (AUMF).
It’s not that lawmakers haven’t tried.
Sens. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.) and Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Defense & National Security: War ends, but finger pointing continues Harris presides over Senate passage of bill assisting Americans fleeing Afghanistan Senate panel votes to repeal Iraq war authorizations MORE (D-Md.) pledged earlier this year to forge a bipartisan path forward on the war bill, but so far that’s remained elusive for the Foreign Relations’ committee’s top duo.
Corker said that the 19-member committee has brainstormed ideas and he's sat down with individual lawmakers. But senators aren’t shy about the fact that the committee has struggled to get anywhere.
Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE (D-Va.) said that the Senate, including the committee, has “hardly had more than 90 minutes of discussion about this” since President Obama sent over a draft bill.
"I guess this has kind of been a chapter in the education of a naive freshman senator,” Kaine, the lead backer for passing a new war authorization, said during a conference call.
Asked about the committee’s meetings, Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K MORE (D-Conn.) said that while ideas were exchanged “they weren’t any that I could be supportive of.”
“It feels like the AUMF conversation is completely dormant,” he added, asked about the state of play on legislation. “I don’t get any sense of momentum in the committee.”
The AUMF is in many ways a victim of competing forces. Corker has made no secret of the fact that he’s reluctant to start a public debate if it doesn’t end with a bipartisan war bill that would resolve the Rubik’s cube of policy and political fights.
The president's proposal would bar any "enduring offensive ground combat operations" in the campaign, language that sparked concern with both parties. Republicans feared the language would restrict the military's options, while Democrats worry it is vague enough to open the door to ground troops and ensnare the U.S. in another Middle East war.
But the AUMF is dividing not only Republicans and Democrats, but lawmakers with the same party.
Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots MORE (R-Ariz.) suggested that when it comes to the stalled proposal there’s enough blame to go around.
“What complicates it is the administration isn’t pushing actively for it,” he said. “Some on the Republican side just obviously don’t want to give the president any new authority, or don’t want to restrict what he has. On the Democratic side, we haven’t found a way to deal with the ‘01 AUMF.”
The administration is currently using the 2001 authorization of force adopted to target al Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks to justify the ISIS fight. Obama's proposed ISIS measure would keep in place the 2001 AUMF.
The administration’s recent escalation of operations is only complicating the legislative effort. Obama is authorizing U.S. military strikes to protect U.S.-trained Syrian troops if they come under attack and working out details for a “safe zone” in the country with Turkey.
That could create deeper worries among Democrats, including Murphy who said that “there's no way to argue that the president’s new military commitment in Syria is authorized by existing AUMFs.”
The war bill could also spend the second half of the year playing second fiddle to Iran, which has dominated lawmakers' attention on foreign policy.
Flake acknowledged the committee effectively punted the AUMF discussions “because the Iran deal has just consumed everything.”
Congress is currently caught in a politically-charged debate on the Iran nuclear deal, and have until Sept. 17 to vote to approve or disapprove, and until early October to try to override a potential presidential veto.
Corker, separately, said that within 30 to 60 days after final vote on the nuclear deal the Senate will take up and likely pass an extension of an Iran sanctions law.
Under that timeline, that could keep Iran at the center of the Senate’s foreign policy radar up until the end of the year.
Looming over the ISIS debate is also the upcoming presidential election. The closer it gets to 2016 the more politically difficult it will get for Congress to authorize Obama’s war.
But Kaine, ever an optimist on the AUMF, said the Senate could pass the war bill—if only they could find the time.
“I have almost complete confidence that we will pass an authorization, it’s just a matter of when,” he said.