Before members of Congress adjourned earlier this month for seven weeks to go out campaigning, some very senior and high-proifle voices in both houses were making some firm commitments on the subject of war and peace. Perhaps realizing that packing their bags and jolting out of town on the eve of a new military conflict in Syria wasn't the best way to improve its image with the public, lawmakers from both parties came back to their senses and pledged to immediately get to work during the lame-duck session on a big project: passing a new authorization for the use of military force. What better way to demonstrate their support and unity behind a wartime Commander-in-Chief than by providing President Obama with statutory authority to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (never mind that Obama already gave the order)?
Senator Dick Durbin (D - IL), the Majority Whip and perhaps the administration's most consistent supporter across the policy spectrum, was adamant when he spoke in favor of drafting up, debating, and passing a fresh AUMF tailored specifically to the ongoing missions in both Iraq and Syria. "We are going to take up the construction of a new authorization for the use of military force," when Congress comes back into session, Durbin said. "It's long overdue."
The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, through which any authorization must pass before being considered on the floor, was equally confident that his colleagues would get straight to work on the weighty subject after campaign season. After a series of hearings and briefings from administration officials on the anti-ISIL military plan, the "Foreign Relations Committee will begin drafting a tailored AUMF to provide the President with the additional authority required..to continue operations to thwart the ISIL threat." That statement came from Sen. Robert Menendez (D - NJ), who during a hearing with Secretary of State John Kerry was vocal in his bewilderment as to why the White House chose to use a 13-year statute for tackling a terrorist group that is currently shooting at Al-Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate.
A growing number of rank-and-file Democrats, in fact, are starting to get a little peeved at the whole idea of President Obama stepping over Congress and expanding a war without its consent and explicit approval. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, a coalition that represents a wing of the Democratic Party that served Obama so loyally during his first-term, called for a vote on a new AUMF the same day that Obama delivered his prime time address to the American people. Senators Tim Kaine (D - VA), Tom Udall (D - NM), Angus King (I - ME) and Martin Heinrich (D - NM) are all of the same mind on the question of war powers.
So the pressure on Obama to come back to Congress seems to building with every passing day, right? Well, up until yesterday, that was certainly the case. But ironically, some of that pressure has now been lifted from his soldiers thanks to comments made to The New York Times by Speaker John Boehner--a man that used to be Obama's top political rival but is inadvertently turning into an unlikely ally as of late.
In the short interview, Boehner tries to play the role of the trapeze artist that he knows so well; that is, balance himself in the middle of what are sometimes two dueling constituencies within the Republican caucus (the establishment and the Tea Party libertarians). Boehner tells the NYT reporter that it's both right and proper for the U.S. Congress to have a debate on an already ongoing armed conflict. But in practically the same breathe, he questions whether having that debate would be appropriate during a lame-duck session, when some members will inevitably have to vacate their seats in another two months. In others words, the House will indeed endorse the president's expansion of the anti-ISIL war into Syria, yet "doing it "with a whole group of members who are on their way out the door" may not be "the right way to handle this."
I understand where Boehner is coming from. If the American people are to be fully represented on such an important issue, it's probably more realistic to wait until the people that they voted for in November are inaugurated in January. But in making that very reasonable point, the Speaker actually provided President Obama with an assist--relieving criticisms among Democratic lawmakers that were starting to get uncomfortable for the former constitutional law professor.
Some of the very same Democrats who up until this week were hitting the White House for acting like the executive power-hungry George W. Bush administration will now have a politically easier target to pin the blame on: the Republican Speaker of the House. Why would a Democratic congressman or congresswoman blame a Democratic president when the Republican Speaker could be blamed for seemingly the same thing?
Eventually, I do believe that President Obama will swallow his pride and ask Congress to take up a new resolution for military force, if only because it's smart politically to spread ownership of an armed conflict to another 535 people. However, in making his off-the-cuff statement to the Times on Thursday morning, Speaker Boehner has given the administration several more months before making that decision.