WASHINGTON -- With the congressional gridlock over the Iranian nuclear program temporarily assuaged, foreign policy-oriented lawmakers are shifting their focus back to a largely forgotten matter: the lack of congressional authorization for the ongoing war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
On Monday, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.) announced their plan to circulate a letter to their colleagues in the House, urging Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) to push forward the process of bringing the war authorization to the House floor for a vote.
“We are deeply concerned that eight months into Operation Inherent Resolve, the House has taken no action on an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which would provide a clear legal justification for the actions against ISIL,” the letter read, using the administration's preferred acronym for the terrorist group.
“Each additional day that passes without Congress taking up an AUMF for our operations against ISIL undermines our authority and role in matters of war and peace,” the letter continued.
The conflict, currently limited to training assistance and daily airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, is estimated to cost $8.5 million per day. President Barack Obama claims legal authority for this war under the 2001 war authorization, passed by Congress after Sept. 11 to authorize targeting those responsible for the attacks.
While most lawmakers accept the legality of the current conflict, they question the optics of waging war against the Islamic State under an authorization that was passed before the current enemy existed.
“Whatever the legal merits of that argument, the 2001 AUMF is at best an inexact fit for the threat posed by ISIL. ISIL came into existence more than a decade after the passage of the 2001 AUMF, and it has at times come into direct conflict with al Qaeda,” noted Schiff and Cole in their letter. “The far preferable course, which would send the message of unity and strength, is to pass a new AUMF, specific to ISIL and the threat it poses, rather than relying on an ill-fitting and outdated authorization.”
In February, partially in response to similar criticisms, the Obama administration drafted a proposed AUMF and sent the text to Congress for approval.
Lawmakers became almost immediately divided on the issue along party lines. With the exception of a few congressional hearings, there has been little effort to pass a new war resolution.
Most Democrats say Obama’s AUMF would keep the U.S. in a state of indefinite war, pointing to the lack of geographic restrictions, a vague definition of the enemy and inadequate restrictions on the use of ground troops. At the same time, Republicans claim the proposed authorization unwisely constrains the commander in chief’s war-fighting abilities by including a three-year sunset clause and imposing restrictions on the types of troops that can be sent into battle.
In the absence of a consensus on the AUMF debate, lawmakers have spent the past several months focusing instead on Iran's nuclear program. Last week, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reached a surprising compromise on a bill that defines the role of congressional oversight in the emerging nuclear deal with Iran.
While the 19-0 vote in favor of the bill was hailed as a rare display of bipartisan cooperation, several lawmakers pointed to the contradiction of Congress refusing to reach a similar compromise on the AUMF.
“We have a constitutional duty to declare war. And we have been in this committee now for four months and haven’t taken any progress to fulfill what is our constitutional obligation to oversee war. I would argue we don’t have a constitutional obligation here,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) last Tuesday, referring to the vote on the Iran bill in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I don’t want to be in a situation where we have a higher standard of oversight on diplomacy than we have for war."
Part of the reason Congress has been slow to act on the AUMF is the recognition within both parties that the passage of a new war authorization carries almost no weight as long as the 2001 law remains in effect.
When asked if he saw the AUMF as the next area for a breakthrough compromise amongst lawmakers, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) seemed hesitant. “I do plan to take it up,” he told The Huffington Post on Thursday, but said he wanted to focus on things that would create an outcome. "I’m just being honest, regardless of what we do on the AUMF, it’s going to have zero effect on what’s happening on the ground in Iraq and Syria.”
To Corker, bringing up the war authorization for debate and failing to reach an agreement could be more harmful than doing nothing. “I don’t want our country to be shown as divided when taking it up is not going to have one iota of effect on what’s going on on the ground,” he added.