POLITICS
09/18/2014 10:18 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2014

Congress Ashamed Of Congress For Tending To Elections Before War Authorization Debate

Bill Clark via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Congress is ashamed of itself for tending to elections before having a war authorization vote. But they'll do it anyway.

A bipartisan faction of lawmakers has been demanding a vote to authorize President Barack Obama's military escalation against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Obama maintains he doesn't need a new authorization to expand U.S. military strikes against the terrorist group; indeed, the U.S. has already carried out 160 airstrikes in Iraq this summer and plans to expand into Syria. But some lawmakers disagree that the president has the authority under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to carry out an open-ended campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State, and argue that Congress must weigh in -- if not for legal reasons, then at least to show where they stand on the serious matter of going to war.

But with elections around the corner, many lawmakers aren't inclined to wade into a thorny debate about war authorization that could jeopardize their races. So the debate is being sidelined for two months, at a minimum, as political campaigns take hold. Not that members of Congress seem particularly surprised by their collective priorities.

"I find it an act of cowardice, but not astonishing," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"Is it embarrassing? Yes," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). "It's an election year. Self-preservation trumps national security."

Members leading the charge for a new, better tailored AUMF speculate it's more than the current election cycle that's sending colleagues running from the issue. U.S. military action against the Islamic State could extend into and even beyond 2016, and should things go awry, lawmakers are inclined to let the president take the fall.

"It's easier to be on the sidelines and, you know, if everything goes well, to say, 'I was always with you.' If not, you can say, 'Whoa, you blew it,'" said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "The fact that we're all taking great pains to do the absolute minimum to avoid an authorization ... is not only not doing our job, it's cowardice."

HuffPost talked to more than a dozen lawmakers about whether they thought Congress should stay in session to delve into the issue. Nearly everyone said yes.

"I think we should complete discussions on this now. Absolutely," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). "This is what we're paid to do."

"Why wouldn't you vote?" asked Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). "Either you're for it or against it, and if you can't defend either being for it or against it, you don't have any business being here in the first place."

"I think the president would be missing an opportunity if he fails to see Senate approval, because it will strengthen his position," added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "I am in favor of more votes as soon as possible."

Yet, the reality is that lawmakers are the ones fueling their party leaders' decisions on whether or not to hold votes -- and when to leave town. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), for example, wouldn't be adjourning for two months if most Democrats were demanding attention to a war authorization debate. The same applies to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republicans. In others words, some of the same lawmakers telling reporters they want a debate on war authorization may also be privately telling party leaders they want nothing to do with it.

"People don't really want to take that vote," said one frustrated House Democrat, who requested anonymity. "People say stuff in there, but they won't vote on it. Talk is cheap. Do I think there will be a vote when we come back? No."

For his part, Reid said he doesn't think it makes Congress seem cowardly that lawmakers are waiting until after they get re-elected to debate the limits of the president's war authority.

"I didn't know we were waiting," he grumbled.

Lawmakers do have to take one war-related vote before they leave town. It's on the narrower question of whether to support Obama's request to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State. The House approved that measure Wednesday evening, and the Senate is poised to pass it on Thursday.

During the House vote, the measure's opponents frequently cited their broader questions about the U.S. war unfolding overseas.

"Just how steep is the slippery slope we are embarking upon? How long will the conflict last? Is there an exit strategy? What does victory look like? How much will it cost? How many U.S. lives will be lost?" asked Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Not everyone feels a sense of urgency on the need for a war authorization debate. Some lawmakers say they're fine with waiting until November to tackle the issue, even as U.S. military action escalates in the meantime.

"I think at one point, we've got to vote on this issue and deal with that. If it's before the election, that doesn't bother me -- if it's before or after," said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), emphasizing that the vote on arming Syrian rebels suffices for now. "I don't support funding the rebels, and that's the issue that's in front of me today."

"[Obama] needs to have a specific vote and approval by Congress at some point. I think it would be -- both legally and from a buy-in perspective from the American people -- wise for him to do that," said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), "but I don't know what the president is going to do."

"It's going to take time for Congress to be able to see if [the president's plans] are achievable goals," added Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). "I think we'll know a lot more as a couple more weeks pass."

Others said they're willing to take the president at his word that he can take military action against the Islamic State on his own.

"I think what we'll do today is give the president exactly what he wants. He is the commander in chief. He was elected to that role," said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). "Right now the administration is telling us they have all the existing authority. I know some of my friends would like to repeal that authority, but I don't think that's the will of the body."

"I believe what the president has done so far -- and will be doing -- he doesn't need a vote to do that," said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). "Some people seem to want to have a vote now; they're of the opinion he doesn't have authority now. That's a difference of opinion."

Even after the elections, there's no guarantee that lawmakers will prioritize a debate on war authorization. It may come down to public opinion deciding when, or if, Congress turns its attention to defining the limits on the president's authority to carry out attacks against the Islamic State -- an endeavor that some speculate could go on for years and incur significant costs.

"It's up to our constituents to determine if they think we're doing our jobs," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). "The public needs to judge the democracy. That's what elections are all about."

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