Congress was all too happy to get out of town last week without having a substantive debate on the president’s claim that he has the authority to use military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the bipartisan votes in both houses of Congress on a less controversial motion to fund the training and supply of moderate rebels fighting ISIS in Syria seemed to some – primarily Democrats – an abdication of Congress’s obligation to weigh in on matters of war and peace.
On the Sunday talk shows and in comments over the past few days, many Democrats have made it clear they are deeply uneasy about President Obama’s determination to mount a years-long effort against ISIS without explicit congressional approval. Conveniently, with both houses out of session until after the November elections, there is little lawmakers can do, at this point, to act on their concerns.
The administration has asserted it has the authority to use military force against ISIS based on a 13-year-old Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed in 2001, allowing the Bush administration to attack Al Qaeda in the months after 9/11.
Appearing on multiple shows Sunday morning, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said the U.S. also has all the jurisdiction it needs under international law to attack ISIS in both Iraq and, if need be, Syria.
“The Iraqis have appealed to the international community to come to their defense, not only in Iraq, but also to go after safe havens in foreign countries – and what they mean by that is Syria and they are quite explicit about that,” Power said.
On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace asked Rep. Adam Schiff (R-CA), “Is Congress forfeiting its constitutional responsibilities?”
“Absolutely,” Schiff replied. “The president has said this is a war. This is going to last years. That is quintessentially something that it’s the power of Congress only to declare. And I think we are really abdicating our responsibility.”
“I don’t accept the administration’s argument that we can rely on the 2001 AUMF which applied to a different conflict against a different enemy at a different time,” Schiff added. “I think it’s an abdication of constitutional dimensions.”
Schiff called on Congress to debate a new AUMF that would say specifically what the president can and cannot do in the fight against ISIS. “I have introduced one that would be very narrow but would bring this fight into a constitutional framework,” he said.
The motion to arm and train Syrian rebels was attached to a continuing resolution to allow the government to keep operating without new appropriations bills, through mid-December. The vote allowed Congress to get out of town, giving the impression they had taken action with regard to ISIS while doing virtually nothing to address the overall authority members believe the president should have in this case.
“I’m broadly supportive of the president’s strategy,” he said. “There’s no doubt we need to have a strong response to ISIL. The question is whether getting involved in a civil war in Syria is necessary to the strategy
Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, who voted for the authorization last week, said on CBS’s Face the Nation that a new AUMF is still something she would like to see.
“We need to deal with use of force in a general nature,” she said, calling for a bill that would illustrate how Congress will accept “the use of military force … that deals with non-state actors who are a threat to our country.”
“There has to be a major debate” on the issue when Congress returns after the election, she said.
Her remarks came just days after a testy exchange in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that exchange, Secretary of State John Kerry, the former chairman of the committee, was grilled by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the current chair.
“How is it that the administration believes that the 9/11 AUMF or the Iraq AUMF provide the authorization to move forward whether the Congress decides to or not…?” Menendez demanded.
“I will tell you that at least from the chair's perspective, you're going to need a new AUMF. And they will have to be more tailored. Because I don't want to be part of 13 years later,” Menendez added.
Republicans were conspicuously quiet on the issue – particularly remarkable given that the House of Representatives is currently involved in a lawsuit against President Obama that specifically attacks him for acting unilaterally rather than seeking congressional approval for new initiatives.
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