WASHINGTON -- From the beginning, Tim Kaine made his position clear in public and private to the president and his aides: He supported a punitive strike against Syria, but he wanted his good friend Barack Obama to come to Congress for permission to launch it.
“When they would do briefing calls to senators in the week before the president made his decision, I was very much encouraging him [to go to Congress]. I was on the phone with a small group of senators on that Friday," the freshman senator from Virginia told The Huffington Post Thursday in a 30-minute interview in his Capitol Hill office. Two hours after Kaine's phone call with the senators, the president told his stunned staff that he would indeed ask Congress for approval.
Did Obama’s decision on that Friday herald a new era in which presidents share some of the power they've amassed that allows them to wage war on their own?
Kaine, who said he's raised broader power-sharing ideas with Obama and that Obama seemed open to them, certainly hopes so.
Conventional wisdom and history hold that presidents never willingly cede an angstrom of their power to wage war, which is grounded in their role as commander in chief. The corollary is that they'll veto any efforts to limit such power -- which is what even the embattled Richard Nixon did in 1973.
Under the existing -- and utterly ignored -- 1973 War Powers Resolution (enacted over Nixon's veto), presidents are under only a vague and ill-defined obligation to consult with Congress. They can initiate military action unilaterally, but with the supposed (but unenforced) proviso that the action must cease within 90 days if Congress doesn't approve.
In practice, the resolution has enabled presidents to do what they want, and it lets members of Congress complain about their powerlessness if and when things go wrong. The resolution "was supposed to limit presidents, but has actually had the opposite effect," said Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar. "It's given them free rein."
But Kaine, while stressing that the president has made no commitments, said he thinks Obama might be the rare exception to the rule.
Well-respected for his earnest efforts at bipartisan outreach both in Washington and in his earlier role as Virginia governor, Kaine is working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on a plan first proposed by a distinguished panel of former secretaries of state in 2007.
Before sending troops into hostile action, the president would be required to consult a new, high-level, permanent “consultative committee” of Congress, made up of 20 people who would be in constant communication with national security officials. After initiating military action, Congress would vote within 30 days on a resolution to approve or disapprove the action. Before the vote, members of the “consultative committee” could weigh in on the matter in public -- presumably with heavy impact.
If Congress voted to disapprove, the president could veto the disapproval -- which Congress could overcome with a two-thirds veto-override vote in both chambers.
Kaine and his aides stressed that the academic proposal is an outline, and not yet a piece of legislation.
Kaine said he's had "modest" conversations about his proposal with longtime White House aide Pete Rouse, and "more significant ones" with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power. "And I've talked to the president directly about it," Kaine added.
As a constitutional lawyer and a former senator -- and as a leader who likes to be seen as a stickler for tidy process -- the president has expressed in the past his concern about the chaotic way decisions about war are made. As a result, he might not block -- and indeed, could even actively champion -- careful reform legislation, Kaine said.
"I think that this president might do it because he knows that it has been sloppy; he knows that presidents have overreached," Kaine said. "He knows that members of Congress haven't been accountable."
Kaine suggested that Obama signaled a willingness to at least consider a new direction in his speech Tuesday night from the Oval Office.
"He understands -- and he kind of articulated this the other night -- that while he preserves a presidential prerogative to take immediate action if he needs to, he understands the people who are fighting the battle, it is important for them to know that both branches [of the federal government] are behind them."
Even though the Constitution requires a congressional vote to declare war, no president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has asked for such a declaration, though George W. Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, asked for and got sweeping powers to attack terrorists and nations that “harbor” them.
Kaine, a Harvard Law grad who is one of only three senators to serve on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committee, was the first sitting governor -- and first major Southern politician -- to endorse then-Sen. Obama’s early presidential efforts in 2006.
He initially forged a bond with the president through serendipity and family. Kaine's mother's family is from El Dorado, the same south-central Kansas town in which Obama's mother's family was based. The two men share an interest in constitutional law, and in presidential powers, Kaine said.
The Kaine-McCain idea, still in embryonic form, was based on a study conducted by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, Kaine said. He talked to the president about it a month before the latest events in Syria, Kaine added. When he briefly served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama -- then a strong proponent of a congressional role in war-making -- heard about the UVA study.
“He didn’t make a commitment one way or the other, but it was funny. He was aware of the Miller Center proposal because he was on Foreign Relations and got briefed about it at the time," Kaine said.
Again, while the proposal is not legislation, Kaine said he and McCain "agreed that we would use this as a starting point, and that we would pull together a working group of senators to massage and improve it."
Kaine said that both he and McCain were thinking about the bigger constitutional picture when the Foreign Relations Committee, on which they both serve, was considering and voting on the now-shelved Syria authorization. Both senators voted "yes" on it. McCain, according to Kaine, declared that the committee had just seen “an excellent little test case of how this thing might work.”
By bringing the matter to Congress on his own, Kaine said, the president made a statement. “The fact that, in this instance, he said, ‘You know, I want to bring this to Congress.’ I view him saying that as courageous, and possibly even a precedent-setting historical move.”