WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) will head to the Senate floor Thursday to point out that it's been nine months since the U.S. began bombing Iraq and Syria -- and nine months of Congress doing nothing to authorize it.
"Our actions so far have demonstrated that we're indifferent or lack a backbone," Kaine said Tuesday in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I'll let you decide."
President Barack Obama has been directing airstrikes against Islamic State group militants in those countries since Aug. 8, 2014. He's doing so without congressional sign-off, arguing he doesn't need it because a sweeping 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) covers his actions. Lawmakers from both parties have disputed the president using an old authorization to take new military action -- Congress has the power to declare war, after all, not the White House -- and for months demanded that Obama send them a request for new war authority. He finally did, in February, and said he welcomed their vote on it, even if he maintains he doesn't need it.
Since then, lawmakers' complaints about not getting a war authorization request have morphed into complaints about not liking the one they got. Democrats think it's too broad, and Republicans say it's too restrictive. Any member of Congress can propose amendments to it, but nobody has figured out how to change it in a way that both parties can agree to. So, the AUMF has not moved and the war has carried on without any parameters on its duration, costs or endgame. As of Wednesday, the U.S. has spent more than $2.1 billion, participated in 3,713 airstrikes and sent roughly 3,000 military personnel to Iraq.
Kaine, one of few voices on Capitol Hill keeping attention on the issue, said it wouldn't be that hard to resolve the outstanding issues for passing a new AUMF tailored specifically to the war against the Islamic State. Lawmakers just need to sit down and spend the time talking it through.
"The only reason you wouldn't find a middle ground to do this is if members of Congress don't believe they should have the power to declare war," he said. "If we don’t do it, Congress has decided."
There are three main points of dispute: how to use U.S. ground troops, if at all; how to define what the mission is given Syria's ongoing civil war; and what to do with the 2001 AUMF. Some Democrats want to repeal it entirely, given how broad it is and that it wasn't intended to apply to a war 14 years in the future. Republicans are loathe to do anything that would rein in the president's war authority.
If anything can get done, it will begin with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passing a bipartisan bill with strong support. The House is waiting for the Senate to act, and the Senate is looking to Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the chairman and ranking member of the committee, respectively, to find a way forward.
For the moment, the AUMF's prospects aren't looking good. Most lawmakers aren't even talking about it, and the questions most commonly heard from Capitol Hill reporters are about whether it's officially dead. But Kaine said he still thinks Congress can get it done, despite the lack of momentum, because the vast majority of lawmakers believe they should be involved in shaping military action against the Islamic State.
"The notion that we cannot find agreement has not been tested by meaningful discussion," he said. "We haven't had that."
Part of the reason the AUMF is on the back burner right now is because the committee has been focused intensely on another bill relating to Iran. That bill, which would let Congress vote to approve or disapprove of an international deal on Iran's nuclear program, made it out of committee but has stalled on the Senate floor.
Once the Iran bill is done, Kaine said, it will be "a fair question about the seriousness of our intentions" if the committee doesn't turn its attention back to the AUMF. He said his Thursday speech will consider what the last nine months of "unilateral executive war" have meant for the country.
"How much longer are we going to allow a war to be waged without even a floor debate about it?" he asked.