WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry came to the Senate on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to pass a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that doesn't restrict President Barack Obama's ability to go after Islamic State militants.
Instead, he received three hours of scolding from senators tired of waiting for the administration to submit draft war authorization language -- and a vow by Democrats to vote on their own AUMF this week, with or without input from the White House.
Kerry presented the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with an outline of what the administration wants in an AUMF to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also called ISIL. Obama maintains he doesn't actually need new legal authority to carry out military strikes against the Islamic State, but has said he welcomes it anyway. Some lawmakers insist the president needs new congressional authorization.
The secretary said an ideal AUMF would have three components: no geographic limitations, a three-year time limit and, notably, no language barring U.S. ground combat troops. Obama has said that he won't send U.S. combat troops into battle with the Islamic State. But on Tuesday, Kerry said it's best not to close that door entirely.
"While we certainly believe this is the soundest policy," he said of the promise of no U.S. combat troops, "that does not mean we should preemptively bind the hands of the commander in chief, or our commanders in the field, in responding to scenarios and contingencies that are impossible to foresee."
Kerry had barely finished his remarks when Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman, slammed the White House for still failing to send draft AUMF language to Congress -- a step that typically gets the ball rolling on war authorization legislation -- and said he's moving forward with his own proposal this week.
"Had this administration sent us an AUMF, maybe we would be better versed as to what the administration seeks or does not seek ... but that is not happening," he said. "There are many of us on the committee, who in the absence of receiving an AUMF for the purposes of understanding the administration's views, felt that it is Congress' responsibility to move forward and define it."
Menendez's bill is similar to Kerry's request. (The Huffington Post obtained a copy of the bill, available here.) It limits military authorization to three years, doesn't specify geographical limits and requires the administration to report to Congress every 60 days.
But there is a caveat: It allows for U.S. combat operations only in specific cases, such as when it involves the rescue of U.S. soldiers or for intelligence operations. Menendez said he's not budging on language about combat troops, either.
"There are some principled views here that may not be reconcilable," he said. "The president has been clear that his policy is that U.S military force will not be deployed to conduct ground combat operations against ISIL."
Kerry protested, saying Obama "has no intention" of sending in combat troops but that his hands shouldn't be tied when making military decisions. Menendez said there's a simple solution.
"There's a famous movie that says show me the money," he said. "I'd say show me the language."
As the hours rolled by, senators lined up to press Kerry on the lack of direction from the administration.
"After all that time, why hasn't the administration sent us a draft proposal?" asked Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis).
"For the life of me, I do not understand why, with such a clear idea of what the authorization should look like -- you don't have anyone over there who can type that up real quick and send it over here so we can begin a debate?" asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). "This committee seeks that sort of presidential leadership on an order of that magnitude."
The secretary couldn't say why, but dismissed the idea that Congress has been helpless in the meantime. "If you want to sit there and say the president didn't show leadership, you could say the committee could have drafted it two to three months ago," he said.
Menendez is planning to share his bill with the committee before Thursday, and collect any amendments that senators may have. Then, on Thursday morning, the committee will vote on it.
There's next to no chance the AUMF will go anywhere beyond the committee before the Senate adjourns this week. But Menendez's insistence on having a vote at all has forced a debate on war authorization -- four months into a $1 billion military action being carried out with no new authorization -- that otherwise wouldn't have happened until next year. That appeases at least some of the senators on the committee.
"I am sad, frankly, that we haven't been able to work with you to craft something together," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Kerry. "If we do take this and pass this, which I hope we do ... hopefully you can embrace it and work with us to make it better. I don't think we should put this off."
“I'm relieved that we are having this debate and that we're having it in the open,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “Congress should not adjourn until we vote on an AUMF.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who will chair the committee next year, said he would have preferred that senators waited until January for a fuller debate on an AUMF. But he laid the blame mostly with the administration for not giving guidance to Congress on what role it should play in shaping the military campaign.
"The reason we're in this cluster ... is because the president hasn't really sought that authorization," he told Kerry. "Today you came closer, not quite all the way there, to asking for an explicit authorization. Came closer."
"A better approach, to me, would be for you to send up the language people have asked for," said Corker.