WASHINGTON -- Democrats forced the House to take votes Thursday on authorizing the war against the Islamic State group, making it the first time the House has touched the issue since the U.S.-led bombing campaign began 10 months ago.
During debate on a defense spending bill, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) offered an amendment that would have halted funding for the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, after March 31, 2016, unless Congress passes an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The amendment, an effort to spur a war authorization debate and vote in Congress, would have given lawmakers nine months to produce an AUMF before funds get cut off.
"If this is worth fighting ISIS, and I believe it is, it's worth having Congress do its job," Schiff said. "If we're going to ask our service members risk their lives, we ought to have the courage ourselves to take a vote on this war."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) put forward two AUMF-related amendments. One would have halted funding tied to a sweeping 2001 AUMF after December 2015; the other would have halted funding tied to the 2002 Iraq War AUMF. President Barack Obama cites both of those AUMFs as his legal justification for unilaterally launching a military campaign against ISIS.
Democrats were able to force votes on those measures because they were amendments to an annual spending bill, which is typically open to floor amendments. Many bills don't allow for amendments that aren't pre-approved by leadership.
Still, it's notable that the votes happened at all given that Congress has done nothing to shape the duration, costs or endgame of the military campaign. Thursday's votes revealed a large number of Democrats and a decent number of Republicans ready to play a role in war authorization, despite GOP leadership not making the issue a priority. Thirty-three Republicans voted for Schiff's amendment.
"While this is another setback for a Congress long derelict in its duty, I will keep pushing for a debate and vote on a new AUMF," Schiff said after the vote.
Obama has been directing airstrikes against ISIS since last August, and he's been doing so without new congressional authorization. The Constitution requires Congress to vote to declare wars, but in this case, the president says he doesn't need the sign-off from lawmakers because of a sweeping 2001 AUMF that covers his actions. Lawmakers pushed back on that for months, so in February, Obama sent them a new, ISIS-specific AUMF proposal, saying he welcomed their vote on it even if he doesn't think he needs it.
Congress hasn't done anything since.
Democrats say the president's proposal is too broad, while Republicans say it's too restrictive. Their differences have given way to complacency. That leaves the U.S. engaged in another war in the Middle East with no clear end in sight. To date, the U.S. has spent more than $2.7 billion on the effort, participated in more than 4,000 airstrikes and sent more than 3,000 troops to Iraq.
The White House announced Wednesday that Obama will deploy another 450 U.S. troops to Iraq, a move that some on Capitol Hill say shows even more of a need for Congress to debate and vote on authorizing the war.
"This is not going away anytime soon. It's not going to be short," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters in a Wednesday conference call. "The more there is a need for assistance, there ought to be more urgency about doing an authorization."
"Let's face it," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told reporters in the same call. "When you get to 3,500 troops there, I hope that everyone realizes that the 2001 authorization that provides the authority for the administration is totally insufficient for this mission."
Kaine and Flake recently unveiled their own AUMF proposal, the first sign of a bipartisan effort to define the nature of the war. They tried to attach their AUMF to another bill, the State Department authorization bill, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week. But it lacked support and they ultimately withdrew it, with a promise from the committee chairman to meet with them privately in the coming weeks to try to find a way forward.
Flake said an AUMF meeting with the chairman may not seem like much, but it's a starting point.
"Prior to yesterday, we had no commitment at all to discuss this in any fashion," he said. "So, this is a change. Just having this meeting, that's where it starts."
Meanwhile, the House passed its defense spending bill, 278-149. The bill provides more than $88 billion for overseas wars, including the ISIS military campaign.