WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama does not have the authority to wage a war against the Islamic State, senators argued Tuesday in a hearing about the administration's plans to target the militant group active in Iraq and Syria.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) declined to put either Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on the spot by asking them to defend the administration's claim that Congress gave it the authority to strike terrorists when it voted in 2001 to authorize the use of military force against al Qaeda and again in 2002 to target Saddam Hussein.
But -- although Kaine and King both support targeting the extremists who recently beheaded two Americans and a British aid worker -- the senators declared that Obama is going about it the wrong way, and that he needs Congress to grant a new authorization to do so.
Kaine pointed to the 2001 measure, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks to target al Qaeda and its supporters. He added that the Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, didn't even exist when the AUMF was passed, and that while the Islamic State was aligned with al Qaeda at one point, the two groups are now in opposition. He also argued that the Iraq authorization to use military force targeted a man who is no longer alive and a government that hasn't existed for more than a decade.
Finally, Kaine noted that Congress at one time expressly denied the George W. Bush administration the type of authority Obama is now claiming.
"It's important to remember not only what Congress authorized, but what Congress refused to authorize," Kaine said. "The Bush administration approached Congress and said, 'We would like the power to undertake military action against terrorist groups to prevent attacks on the United States.' If Congress had granted that, it clearly would have covered this threat. But Congress overwhelmingly rejected that."
King said that if Congress does not stand firm now and insist on spelling out new authority for the White House, the legislature will become superfluous to future declarations of war.
"Stretching the AUMF from 2001 or 2002 to cover this situation renders the constitutional clause [that gives Congress the authority to declare war] a nullity," King said.
"The danger here is, as this happens year by year, war by war, conflict by conflict, eventually there's nothing left of that provision and we have, in fact, transferred to the executive the unilateral power to commit American forces," said King. "That's not good for this country."
Watch the senators' remarks above.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.