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Kerry talk deepens Dem unease on ISIS war powers

Kerry talk deepens Dem unease on ISIS war powers
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Obama administration officials testifying on Capitol Hill this week failed to provide a single compelling answer to the question that looms over their request for an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The language that has been proposed by the White House would prohibit the use of U.S. troops in “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Shifting answers provided by Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryFor Joe Biden, an experienced foreign policy team Biden's trade policy needs effective commercial diplomacy Biden taps ex-Obama aide Anita Dunn as senior adviser MORE, among others, only deepened concerns among Democrats who are already uneasy about granting excessive war-making powers.

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Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenBipartisan group of senators: The election is over Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 How Congress dismissed women's empowerment MORE (D-N.H.) told The Hill on Thursday that the testimony given by others as well as Kerry "reinforced what some of the concerns are ... about that language.”

Kerry testified four times on Capitol Hill this week.

He said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday that "enduring" meant "weeks and weeks" of combat. However, at a House hearing on Wednesday, he said "you could obviously define it in terms of months, not years."  

He also said on Tuesday that it would not restrict troops from embedding "in an overnight deal" with Iraqi troops, but then on Wednesday he said it could be a "one- or two- or three-day period or something." 

When Rep. Alan GraysonAlan Mark GraysonFlorida's Darren Soto fends off Dem challenge from Alan Grayson Live results: Arizona and Florida hold primaries The Hill's Morning Report: Frustration mounts as Republicans blow up tax message MORE (D-Fla.) pressed him on whether it would ban troops from doing so for two months, Kerry said, "It depends on what they are being asked to do and what they were doing." 

The White House’s envoy leading the anti-ISIS coalition, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, similarly struggled to define the phrase "enduring" during a Senate hearing on Wednesday. 

" 'Enduring' might only be two weeks. But ‘enduring’ might be two years," Allen said. "It would be difficult to put necessarily a level of precision against the word ‘enduring.’ " 

Allen also said that the ban on "enduring offensive ground combat operations" would not apply to troops who were defined as "defensive." 

"If the administration really believes that massive troop presence in the Middle East is going to create more terrorists than it destroys, then what's the difference if we label them offensive or defensive?" Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenate Democrats leery of nixing filibuster Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial Lawmakers push back on late Trump terror designation for Yemen's Houthis MORE (D-Conn.) told The Hill on Thursday.

Murphy said it would be hard for him to support the AUMF as is, and that Congress should go back to an AUMF the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed in December, which is more restrictive. 

"I think unfortunately these hearings are creating just as many questions as they're answering," he said. 

Grayson on Thursday told the Hill the AUMF would in essence "give the president a blank check, which I'm not willing to give to him." 

Democrats on Thursday said the lack of precise definitions highlights the difficulty they will have in approving an AUMF that could potentially lead to a large U.S. ground presence in Iraq, bringing back bad memories of the Iraq War, which began in 2003.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Allen's testimony "defines the complexity" of trying to understand what would be allowed under the White House's proposed AUMF. 

"When he said it could go from anywhere from two weeks to two years — that in essence is the rub of the problem," he told The Hill on Thursday. 

Republicans, on the other hand, declined to comment specifically on Kerry or Allen's comments on Thursday, saying that exact language will be hashed out in future hearings. 

In general, many Republicans oppose an AUMF that would place restrictions on U.S. ground troops, saying that such limits could telegraph a weakness of U.S. resolve against ISIS or tie military commanders' hands.

Experts who testified at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday were scathing about the White House's draft AUMF proposal. 

Robert M. Chesney, University of Texas associate dean and professor, said "enduring" was a "grossly indeterminate phrase on its face and must be dropped." 

"The language will inevitably cast a shadow over commanders' operational decisions," he added. "Commanders should not be left to guess where the boundaries lie." 

Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said the AUMF proposal was "a flawed document" and has no meaningful restrictions. 

"The proposed authorization leaves untouched the 2001 AUMF, which the administration construes quite broadly," Wittes said. 

Meanwhile, House Democrats have been casting doubt in recent days as to whether an AUMF can be passed any time soon, or even at all. 

Rep. Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenLIVE COVERAGE: House votes to name Speaker COVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Wash.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said although the committee doesn’t have jurisdiction over AUMF legislation, it should be involved in the debate and it could be months before the committee got to seriously considering it. 

“There are two chambers. And we’re in the middle of writing a defense bill, and it may be that the AUMF debate doesn’t really happen in our committee until we get to a defense bill,” he said. 

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver Conservative caucus opposes waiver for Biden's Pentagon pick 'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack MORE (D-Wash.) cast doubt on Thursday as to whether an AUMF could be passed given that divide. 

"Unfortunately, I am skeptical that Congress will find the will to overcome our internal divisions, both between parties and internal to them, to authorize this action,” he said.