WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is expected to ask Congress as soon as Wednesday for new authority to fight Islamic State militants, including the ability to deploy limited U.S. ground troops -- a provision all but certain to draw bipartisan fire.
Obama will send his proposal in the form of a draft Authorization for Use of Military Force.
It's a retroactive request: The U.S. has already been bombing the Islamic State for the past six months. The president maintains that he doesn't actually need new congressional authorization to fight the group -- he's said a sweeping 2001 AUMF gives him that authority -- but states that he welcomes a new AUMF anyway. Some lawmakers disagree that he has current authority.
The White House is staying mum on what to expect in the proposed AUMF, and officials maintain nothing has been finalized yet. But conversations with Hill aides and lawmakers, who have been briefed by administration officials, are shedding light on its details.
The new AUMF would limit military operations to three years, and it would repeal a 2002 Iraq War AUMF that never expired. It wouldn't repeal the 2001 measure, which has also never expired. It wouldn't put any geographic limitations on the battlefield; instead, it would limit military action to countering the Islamic State and associated forces. The AUMF itself would sunset in three years, which would give the next president until 2018 to shape the next steps forward.
Most significantly, Obama's proposal would allow for limited U.S. ground troops in such situations as the search and rescue of U.S. soldiers or intelligence operations. Otherwise, it would explicitly prohibit ground troops in "enduring offensive ground operations."
Congressional lawmakers have been clamoring for AUMF language from the White House for months, as a starting point for their own legislative debate. But it's clear that what's coming down the pipeline isn't going to sail through Congress.
Republicans, by and large, have opposed putting parameters on the president's ability to fight Islamic State forces. Obama's tight limits on ground troops won't sit well with some of them.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, flatly said "no" when asked Tuesday if he supports any limits in a new authorization for military force.
Democrats, meanwhile, have raised concerns about wading into another open-ended war in the Middle East and want tight language. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) are among those who have said they oppose U.S. ground troops, barring certain exceptions. Some Democrats have also called for repealing the 2001 AUMF.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) shrugged Tuesday when asked how lawmakers will reach a bipartisan compromise. He said he only "hoped" it wouldn't take months to pass something. But given that it's already been six months since the U.S. began dropping bombs on the militants, he said it's time for Congress to step up and authorize the use of military force.
"Members of Congress are always torn. On the one hand, we want to beat our chests and say this is our right to make this decision. On the other hand, we say we don't want any fingerprints if it goes wrong," Durbin said. "We've got to accept our constitutional responsibility here."
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met privately with Senate Democrats earlier Tuesday to discuss details of the AUMF. Eggleston was also set to meet with House Democratic leaders on Tuesday evening, and then separately with some House Republicans.
In the Senate meeting, Durbin said, there were lots of questions about the definition of "enduring offensive ground operations," as it pertains to when ground troops can and can't be deployed.
"What does it mean? How long, how big, is 'enduring'? 'Offensive,' what's 'offensive'?" asked Durbin. "That, to me, is the crux of our debate."
He added, "We have some legitimate questions as to whether we open this up with a loophole that could lead to another major war."
Top party leaders on both sides have warned that it will be an uphill battle getting an AUMF approved. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week, "This is not going to be an easy lift." Similarly, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week that it's "going to be a challenge."
But it's not as if the AUMF were crafted without Hill input. An administration source familiar with congressional outreach said that the proposal is the product of weeks of intense negotiations between the White House and Congress. Top officials in the White House Counsel's Office, the Office of Legislative Affairs and the National Security Council have been meeting with lawmakers and their staff to draft language. Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from both parties have been directly involved, as have House leaders and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"On the whole, the consultations have been productive and well-received," said the source. "Even members who have expressed some disagreement with the Administration’s approach have noted they appreciate the thoughtful and constructive way in which the White House has gone about seeking their input and engaging in a meaningful discussion on specific aspects of the language."
The White House has signaled that it's ready to work with Congress to get the AUMF passed.
"When we're talking about something as weighty as an authorization to use military force, I would anticipate that it will require substantial effort from certainly the leaders in both parties in both chambers of Congress," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last Thursday. "But I think ... the administration is also committed to dedicating some resources to the passage of this new AUMF."
As soon as lawmakers receive the final AUMF proposal, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to move quickly to hear testimony from administration officials on the strategy for defeating the Islamic State. Senators can, and likely will, offer amendments to the AUMF once it comes up for debate in the committee.
There will be "rigorous hearings," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the committee.