WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers determined to have a war authorization debate chalked up a win on Wednesday: they forced the House of Representatives to spend two hours debating legislation that would pull U.S. troops out of Iraq and Syria if Congress doesn't authorize the ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State by the end of the year.
The House rejected the bill, 139 to 288. But for those desperate to have any kind of discussion about war authorization, the debate alone was a victory.
Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) used an obscure provision in the War Powers Resolution to bring forward a concurrent resolution requiring troop withdrawals if Congress fails to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, by Dec. 31.
Republican leaders didn't want the issue on the House floor, but because those lawmakers leaned on authorities provided by the War Powers Resolution, they were able to bypass leadership to force a vote on withdrawing U.S. forces from hostilities.
Their resolution was an attempt to spur a broader debate on the merits of the war itself. It's been 10 months since the U.S. began bombing the Islamic State, but Congress still hasn't debated the military action or voted to authorize it. The House did vote to spend tens of billions of dollars on more war funding, though.
"This House appears to have no problem sending our uniformed men and women into harm’s way. It appears to have no problem spending billions of dollars for the arms, equipment and airpower to carry out these wars," McGovern said during the debate. "But it just can’t bring itself to step up to the plate and take responsibility for these wars."
“Our servicemen and women are brave and dedicated. Congress, however, is guilty of moral cowardice," he added. "The Republican leadership of this House whines and complains from the sidelines, and all the while it shirks its constitutional duties to bring an AUMF to the floor of this House, debate it and vote on it."
President Barack Obama has been directing airstrikes against the Islamic State since last August, and he's been doing so without new congressional authorization. The Constitution requires Congress to vote to declare wars, but in this case, Obama says he doesn't need the green light from lawmakers because of a sweeping 2001 AUMF that gives him legal justification. Lawmakers pushed back on that for months, so in February, Obama sent them a proposal for a new, ISIS-specific AUMF, saying he welcomed their vote on it even if he doesn't think he needs it.
Congress hasn't done anything since. Democrats say the president's proposal is too broad, Republicans say it's too restrictive and their differences have given way to complacency. That leaves the U.S. engaged in another war in the Middle East with no clear end in sight. The Defense Department puts the average daily cost of operations at $9.1 million.
Wednesday's two-hour debate was the longest the House has spent talking about authorizing the ISIS military campaign since the U.S began bombing Iraq and Syria last August. So far, the U.S. has spent more than $2.7 billion, participated in more than 4,000 airstrikes and sent 3,000 troops to Iraq in the effort. Obama recently announced 450 more U.S. troops are heading to Iraq.
McGovern picked up a decent number of supporters for his resolution, despite the fact that it ultimately failed. Nineteen Republicans voted for it, along with 120 Democrats. Supporters emphasized that the goal of the resolution isn't to pull troops out of military conflict, per se, but to get lawmakers to do their job when it comes to authorizing war.
"What we're debating here is when to have the AUMF… the time to have that was two years ago," said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.). "I just want to remind my colleagues this is a strategy, a parliamentary tactic, that's necessary to force the debate and let's have the debate."
"Yes, this a blunt instrument," McGovern said. "But I don't know what else it will take to force this issue."
"We wouldn't even be talking about the Middle East if it wasn't for this resolution," Jones added.
But the measure ran into a wall of opposition. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he commended McGovern for reminding Congress of its role in matters of war and peace, but opposed the bill.
"This resolution, I believe, would take us in the opposite direction of where U.S. policy should be. If the United States were to remove our forces from the theater, as this resolution calls for, ISIS would surely grow stronger," said Royce. "This has nothing to do with authorizing the use of force against ISIS, but would unilaterally withdraw U.S. forces from the fight."
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the committee, also dismissed it.
"Congress needs to do its job and pass an AUMF … We should have acted on this months ago," said Engel. "But I believe withdrawal by a date certain, at this time, is the wrong policy."
Lawmakers' use of the War Powers Resolution to force a debate is one of a handful of recent attempts by Democrats to put the issue of war authorization front and center. Earlier this month, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) succeeded in tucking language stating that it is Congress' job to authorize wars into the annual defense spending bill. Last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tried to attach an amendment to the defense bill that would have cut off funding for the war unless Congress passed a new AUMF by next March. That attempt failed.
For now, Republican leaders haven't given any indication that they're prepared to move a new AUMF through the process. Jones told The Huffington Post he wasn't sure why people in his party haven't made it a priority.
"I don't know why they're so absent. I don't know if it's the politics of Washington, I don't know if it's the fundraising of Washington," said the North Carolina Republican. "The American people would hate to start seeing people killed in Iraq. If that starts to happen, you're going to see an outrage."