WASHINGTON — When Congress returns from recess, U.S. President Donald Trump will face a push from some lawmakers who say he should ask for their authorization to wage an extended war in Syria and Iraq.
A top House Republican, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, said the authorization passed after 9/11 has been stretched beyond its original intent. To fight Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces or the Islamic State group, Trump should submit a request to Congress, he told Defense News.
A key GOP strategist as well as a member of the House Budget Committee and the House Appropriations' Defense Subcommittee, Cole — with Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. — is circulating a letter among House colleagues addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asking for an authorization of the use of military force.
“[Trump needs Congress' authorization] if we’re going to engage longer term in ways that put us into conflict with the Assad government, or frankly, even this effort underway against in Raqqa and that area — and all the way over to Mosul,” Cole said, referring to ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq respectively.
Cole said the U.S. airstrike against Assad’s forces earlier this month did not need Congress' OK because it was a singular instance. Yet, he said, it was incomprehensible to him that the U.S. would use a 16-year-old authorization to fight a group that did not exist when it was drafted, in Syria, which was not in mind at the time.
“Congress is deeply in danger of losing its war-making authority because it’s simply allowing presidents to go to war wherever, whenever they want, under whatever pretext,” Cole said. “That’s not what the Constitution says we ought to be doing.”
Democrats have been more strident on the issue. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., unsuccessfully called on Ryan to call his members back from this month’s recess to debate the future of U.S. military operations in Syria. Ryan, for his part, has asked Trump to confer with Congress about his plans to defeat ISIS.
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, soon after the airstrikes, echoed his call from the Obama era that the administration present and seek approval for a plan to fight ISIS. A member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Kaine had called Trump’s decision to attack Syria without congressional approval “unlawful.”
“The idea of the drafters of our Constitution was that you had to put a check against an executive gone wild,” Kaine said on NBC’s "Meet the Press." “We don’t have a system where the president just gets to launch missiles against anybody they want to, and they haven’t presented a plan to Congress and asked for our approval, and that is what they’ve got to do.”
California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on MSNBC that Trump “also won’t tell us what he plans to do next if there would be another strike. To me, that’s exactly why it’s so important for us to have the AUMF — the authorization of the use of military force. This needs to be discussed and debated in Congress because we just simply don’t know what he’s going to do.”
In 2014, the Obama administration began airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, without special permission from Congress. Then in 2015, the administration sent an AUMF to lawmakers that would have prohibited American ground forces from participating in "enduring offensive ground combat operations." It stalled in the House.
Though there have been various proposals in recent years, leaders of both parties, Cole said, have not wanted to subject their members to a difficult vote.
“That’s great, but you get paid to vote, that’s your job and the Constitution is pretty explicit about who has the power to levy war,” he said. “I’d say leadership needs to forget about partisan politics and make sure we pursue our constitutional responsibilities.”
While there's been a core group of members keenly interested in passing another AUMF, the issues doesn't seem to have reached the critical mass to move it forward, said national security analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, of the American Enterprise Institute. Most members don't want to take a politically fraught vote that could come back to bite them in an election, and the White House does not want to be handcuffed by Congress on matters most commanders in chief think they should be given broad latitude.
"There may be lots of discussions, letters and even a hearing or two. But no votes. In either chamber," Eaglen said in an e-mail. "It’s easy to say you’re for a new AUMF if you secretly know (or just assume) one will never come to the floor."