WASHINGTON — Weeks after US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address chided Congress for criticizing his response to the Islamic State group but not authorizing his use of force against the group, the Senate may be stepping up to the plate.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fast-tracked a broad authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) authored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to the Senate calendar on Thursday.
Along with Graham’s AUMF, three others have emerged in Congress. One passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2014; one was written by the president; and the other, drafted by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., which has a companion in the House, introduced by Reps. Scott Rigell, R-Va., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
In June, Kaine and Flake made a proposal that would have authorized action for three years, and it included the use of ground troops only to protect the lives of US citizens under imminent threat.
By contrast, Graham's authorization has no expiration date or prohibition on US ground troops. It also addresses the Islamic State group’s well documented ability to recruit through social media — with no limits to disrupt the group’s online activities.
Under what is colloquially known as “Rule 14,” McConnell allowed Graham's AUMF to bypass the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but it has not been assigned a time for a floor debate.
It's unclear whether the move marks an ideological shift for the Senate leaders, who have said they would not advance an AUMF without a coherent strategy from Obama to take on ISIS — an argument that dovetails with the GOP talking point that Obama is weak on national security.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, was caught off-guard when told of the move by a reporter on Thursday.
“I don’t think we should be afraid of that debate, but we need a coherent strategy from the president, which we still don’t have, and we don’t need to tie the hands of the next president,” Cornyn said. “I think it’s an important debate to have and certainly the people we send into harm’s way need to know the country is behind them, so thanks for telling me.”
Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who dropped out of the race for president Dec. 21, said on Thursday he would like to see his AUMF advance to the Senate floor, whether it has bipartisan support or not.
“The president is calling on the Congress to stand up, be counted,” Graham said. “If our Democratic friends don’t want to give this president and other presidents the ability to go after ISIS without limitation to geography, time and means, be on the record. … If you don’t understand that these guys are moving all around the world and they’re hitting us here at home, then you’re making a mistake.”
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., suggested Thursday the measure will not advance further and repeated his position that the administration has the legal authority it needs already.
“I don’t think it changes anything, and I’m glad that people are trying to participate in the debate,” Corker said.
Corker said that he would be willing to take up a bill that is “constructive” and has bipartisan support.
The only bipartisan bill in play is the one sponsored by Kaine and Flake — who said Thursday it would be difficult for Graham’s bill to get Democratic support.
“I can go with this, but I don’t think a lot of my colleagues will,” Flake told reporters.
In 2014, Sen. Bob Menendez, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, crafted an AUMF that would have given legal authorization for three years and barred ground combat operations.
“I’m for the Congress voting on an AUMF, of course it depends on what the AUMF looks like,” Menendez, D-N.J., said Thursday. “I don’t want a blank check. When I was chairman, we passed something that had conditions that we thought gave the president the wherewithal to fight [the Islamic State group]."