Why Obama’s AUMF Faces Trouble on the Hill

Republicans don’t trust President Obama, and both the White House and the GOP may prefer the status quo.

President Barack Obama (C) speaks alongside Speaker of the House John Boehner (L), Republican of Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), Republican of Kentucky, prior to a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, DC, January 13, 2015.
AFP/Getty Images
Feb. 11, 2015, 8:39 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s draft au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of mil­it­ary force to com­bat the Is­lam­ic State has been on Cap­it­ol Hill for less than a day, and already it’s in trouble.

Rampant skep­ti­cism from both sides of the aisle threatens to scuttle the bill in the House be­fore de­bate even be­gins. The prob­lem, as de­scribed by sev­er­al mem­bers, in­clud­ing a high-rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an in­volved in the AUMF ne­go­ti­ations, is that there may be no le­gis­lat­ive text that can thread the needle between hawks who want a full-scale mil­it­ary cam­paign against IS­IS; liber­tari­an and pro­gress­ive anti-war mem­bers who want no in­ter­ven­tion at all; and mem­bers who would ap­prove the use of force, but only if it is spe­cific­ally re­stric­ted in geo­graphy, length and scope.

The res­ult could be a fail­ure to pass any kind of au­thor­iz­a­tion, which would simply mean the status quo — and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­ceed­ing with its op­er­a­tions against IS­IS.

Speak­ing at the White House on Wed­nes­day, Obama seemed to go out of his way to ad­dress Demo­crat­ic wor­ries about a pos­sible quag­mire more than GOP con­cerns that the lan­guage is too lim­it­ing.

“The res­ol­u­tion we’ve sub­mit­ted today does not call for the de­ploy­ment of U.S. ground com­bat forces to Ir­aq or Syr­ia,” Obama said. “It is not the au­thor­iz­a­tion of an­oth­er ground war, like Afgh­anistan or Ir­aq. “¦ As I’ve said be­fore, I’m con­vinced that the United States should not get dragged back in­to an­oth­er pro­longed ground war in the Middle East. That’s not in our na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest and it’s not ne­ces­sary for us to de­feat ISIL.”

Obama did add, in a nod to more hawk­ish views, that “this res­ol­u­tion strikes the ne­ces­sary bal­ance by giv­ing us the flex­ib­il­ity we need for un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances.”

At a private meet­ing of the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Speak­er John Boehner urged his mem­bers to “keep your powder dry,” ac­cord­ing to sources in the room, in­tim­at­ing that they should not out­right re­ject the AUMF be­fore they have a chance to change it.

He later told the press that the pres­id­ent’s text is only the first step in what will be a long le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess, com­plete with com­mit­tee hear­ings and markups. But he ad­ded his own ap­pre­hen­sion about what Cap­it­ol Hill sources de­scribed as a chor­us of ir­re­con­cil­able de­mands from far-flung ideo­lo­gic­al pock­ets of House mem­bers.

“If we’re go­ing to au­thor­ize use of mil­it­ary force, the pres­id­ent should have all the tools ne­ces­sary to win the fight that we’re in,” Boehner told re­port­ers. “I’m not sure that the strategy thats been out­lined will ac­com­plish the mis­sion that the pres­id­ent wants to ac­com­plish.”

“The pres­id­ent’s point is that he wants to dis­mantle and des­troy IS­IS. I haven’t seen a strategy yet that I think will ac­com­plish that,” he ad­ded.

Boehner’s view is con­sist­ent with the more hawk­ish corners of the GOP Con­fer­ence, and one that is likely a ma­jor­ity view­point in the party: Many Re­pub­lic­ans are re­luct­ant to vote for an au­thor­iz­a­tion that they see as overly re­strict­ive and ill-defined. Asked wheth­er the lan­guage is fuzzy, White House spokes­man Josh Earn­est on Wed­nes­day said, “in­ten­tion­ally so.”

Adding to the prob­lem is that al­though mem­bers see an ur­gency to con­front­ing IS­IS, many do not see much ur­gency in passing an AUMF. There already are some 3,000 troops on the ground, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion is en­gaged in a cam­paign of air­strikes. They are ask­ing Con­gress for per­mis­sion to con­tin­ue the cam­paign that already is be­ing waged, yet if Con­gress does not pass this AUMF, pri­or au­thor­iz­a­tions will still al­low the ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­tin­ue its mil­it­ary activ­ity. Earn­est em­phas­ized Wed­nes­day that the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves it does not need a new au­thor­iz­a­tion to con­tin­ue its op­er­a­tions against IS­IS.

That leads some Re­pub­lic­ans to ques­tion wheth­er the polit­ic­al will ex­ists to push an au­thor­iz­a­tion through.

The sub­text to all those doubts is an over­rid­ing lack of GOP trust in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to carry out this mil­it­ary cam­paign, and already there are signs of com­mu­nic­a­tion break­downs between the White House and the House. White House coun­sel Neil Eggle­ston briefed House GOP lead­er­ship and rel­ev­ant com­mit­tee chair­men Tues­day night, but Re­pub­lic­ans are tak­ing is­sue with what they see as mis­com­mu­nic­a­tion or mis­in­form­a­tion on the part of the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“Based on a brief­ing last night, the White House is us­ing a much more re­strict­ive in­ter­pret­a­tion of ‘en­dur­ing of­fens­ive op­er­a­tions’ than ex­pec­ted, and that is po­ten­tially a ma­jor prob­lem,” a House GOP lead­er­ship aide said, speak­ing an­onym­ously to il­lu­min­ate private dis­cus­sions.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans who sit on rel­ev­ant com­mit­tees said there had been little to no com­mu­nic­a­tion from the ad­min­is­tra­tion in the lead-up to the text be­ing re­leased.

Even as key Demo­crats ex­pressed their own con­cerns Wed­nes­day about as­pects of the AUMF, they also ques­tioned GOP motives on the is­sue.

“I would hope that we could have a thought­ful con­ver­sa­tion about what is right for the Amer­ic­an people, without [Re­pub­lic­ans] get­ting in­to their ‘We don’t trust the Pres­id­ent’ mode,” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said at a press con­fer­ence.

Across the Cap­it­ol on Wed­nes­day even­ing, Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Cork­er and Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Mc­Cain led a dis­cus­sion with the GOP Con­fer­ence on Obama’s plan.

“We’re a long ways from tak­ing votes on that thing,” Sen. Ron John­son said after the meet­ing. “From my stand­point, the AUMF is really the last step in the pro­cess.”

The first? De­fin­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s over­all strategy. Some Re­pub­lic­ans are in no rush to hurry an AUMF through the Sen­ate.

“I don’t think there’s any­body who feels like their hair is on fire over this,” Cork­er said. “The bomb­ing’s been go­ing on for six months. [The pres­id­ent] had six months to send something over, he did, that’s ap­pre­ci­ated, and now we’ll be­gin the work of go­ing through the pro­cess.”

“The most im­port­ant thing for the next peri­od of time is for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to be able to lay out in a plaus­ible way how we’re go­ing to be suc­cess­ful,” Cork­er said.

To some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, both the strategy and the end game are still un­clear.

“I need to find out ex­actly what Pres­id­ent Obama is try­ing to achieve,” John­son said. “I know he says ‘de­grade and ul­ti­mately des­troy IS­IS.’ I’m not sure what he means by that. I don’t think his defin­i­tion of des­troy and de­feat is the same as mine.”

Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.
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