Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) are pushing for action on legislation to authorize the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), despite limited interest so far from the White House.
The bipartisan duo in May introduced a new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that would repeal a 2001 law giving the president authority to undertake war against al Qaeda and its affiliates.
In its place, a new AUMF would specifically target ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban, while also giving lawmakers more oversight of where President Trump uses military force and which groups he can use it against.
Speaking Wednesday at a Wilson Center event in Washington, D.C., the senators said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford are aware of the new AUMF but have given no input.
Mattis and Dunford have testified before the Senate on the matter, saying they look forward to working with lawmakers on the issue. But neither has spoken about the bill beyond that, Kaine said.
Flake pointed out that their bill “is not inconsistent with any statement made by the current administration,” but noted that the topic is a sensitive one.
The White House has so far been quiet on it.
“Any administration that is undertaking current activity in any country is going to be reluctant to propose an AUMF and come forward because the failure of that seems to indicate that they realize that they may not have the legal basis to move forward with what they’re doing,” Flake said.
“It would be ideal for the administration to offer language up and then for us to massage it … but I don’t think that’s realistic at this point,” he added.
The senators’ proposed AUMF would repeal the 2001 bill passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War – bills that have held for 16 years and have been used to justify the Iraq War and the fight against ISIS.
To avoid a similar “zombie authorizations,” Kaine and Flake's ISIS war bill would automatically sunset after five years, though Congress would be able to expedite reauthorization before it expires.
A new AUMF been avoided by lawmakers for years, with Republicans worried it would limit the president's authority and Democrats concerned about unchecked use of troops on the ground.
But Kaine and Flake warn Congress is ceding authority to the White House by not taking action.
“We’ve got to have skin in the game,” Flake said. “It’s too easy for members of Congress to simply blame the administration, Republican or Democrat, with what’s being done with regard to foreign wars or conflicts. Our allies certainly need to know where we stand. Our adversaries need to know where we stand.”
Kaine said that 16 years after the original AUMF, “we’ve got people deployed overseas, people that have lost their lives in this battle against ISIS and not a mumbling word out of us in terms of an authorization.”
“The magnitude of this abdication becomes more and more apparent to the public.”
Momentum for a new AUMF is apparent across Capitol Hill. Late last month, the House Appropriations Committee adopted an amendment that would eventually revoke the administration's war authority, forcing Congress to vote on a new one.
Offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the provision was unexpectedly backed by Republicans and added to a must-pass defense spending bill.
On the Senate side, the Foreign Relations Committee has already held one hearing on the AUMF and plans to hold several more, Flake said.
The committee hopes to eventually have both diplomatic and military officials “come forward and offer us their pros and their cons and here’s how they would propose to make it better,” Kaine said.
“You’ve got Trump administration official Gen. Dunford and Secretary Mattis saying you ought to do this; you’ve got Barbra Lee - who’s viewed in the House obviously as one of the more left members - she gets an unanimous vote out of the House Appropriations, that shows there’s an increasing sense of unease and disquiet about the status quo,” Kaine said.
“If we can speak to that and work together with the administration, we can do something good.”