Congress Takes A Step Toward Declaring War on ISIS

Mitch McConnell has introduced a resolution to authorize military force against the Islamic State. Will it come to a vote?

Smoke rises after a U.S. air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani. (Murad Sezer / Reuters)

Congress may be edging closer to formally authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quietly introduced a joint-resolution on Wednesday to authorize the use of military force against the terrorist group. It would grant the administration sweeping authority to combat the Islamic State, though it is far from certain that the measure will receive a vote.

Disagreement over how much authority Congress should hand the president in the fight against ISIS has so far stalled efforts to authorize force on Capitol Hill. McConnell has been sharply critical of the president’s request for military force, and has thrown cold water on the prospect that the Senate would vote to approve it. Even close colleagues were surprised by the move. When the National Journal asked Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn to comment on the fact that McConnell had introduced the resolution, he replied, “He did?”

Whether or not a vote is held, the resolution may revive debate in Congress over how aggressive American military action against the Islamic State should be. It also creates an opportunity for Republicans to cast the president as overly passive in the fight against the terrorist group. The Senate majority leader’s proposal is broader than what Obama asked Congress to pass last February. The president’s proposal did not authorize “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” It was also time-limited: The authorization was set to expire after three years.

Hawkish Senate Republicans such as former 2016 presidential candidate Lindsey Graham oppose such restrictions, saying they would tie the administration's hands as it works to fight a terrorist threat. Essentially a modern-day equivalent of a declaration of war, an authorization of military force, or AUMF, would allow Congress to spell out its priorities in the fight against the Islamic State. And the resolution introduced by McConnell highlights a clear contrast with the administration on foreign policy. It authorizes the president to:

use all necessary and appropriate force in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, its associated forces, organizations, and persons, and any successor organizations.

Nothing in its provisions constrains the length of that fight, limits its geographic scope, or imposes restrictions on the nature of the forces that could be deployed. That may be well received by Republican lawmakers concerned that the administration’s proposal didn’t go far enough. But it is likely to alarm war-weary Democrats fearful that the U.S. could become locked into a protracted conflict abroad.

The resolution is co-sponsored by Graham along with Republican Senators Orrin Hatch, Joni Ernst and Daniel Coats.

The administration did not immediately signal opposition to the proposal on Thursday, instead indicating a potential willingness to compromise. “We certainly welcome Republicans taking an interest in specifically authorizing the continued use of military force against ISIL,” a White House spokesperson said, adding that the administration “remain[s] open to reasonable adjustments” to the president’s proposal. But there was a warning, too: “The president has also been clear from the beginning that we will not be engaging in the type of armed conflict that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that remains the case.”

It seems unlikely that a Senate vote is imminent. A spokesman for the senate majority leader said that McConnell would be open to supporting “an AUMF that doesn’t tie the hands of this or any future commander-in-chief.” He added that if the president were to seek approval for such a measure: “It would be the intent of the leader to consider an AUMF through the regular order, working with Chairman [Bob] Corker and the Foreign Relations Committee.”

The president’s undeclared war on ISIS puts Republicans in an awkward spot. GOP leaders don’t want to look as though they have ceded authority, a perception Republicans risk if they fail to act as a check on the administration’s power to deploy military force. But if Congress does authorize military force, such an action might be construed as a stamp of approval for the president’s broader foreign-policy objectives, making it harder for the GOP to credibly level criticism against the administration as it fights the Islamic State.

For now, McConnell can point to the resolution as evidence that Republicans are working to hold the president accountable, and perhaps convince the administration to take a harder-line in the fight against ISIS. The measure also gives the majority leader a chance to paint a picture of a more assertive brand of Republican foreign policy compared to a more constrained approach from the administration.

If McConnell were to set up a vote on an authorizing measure, the House might be willing to do the same. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan recently told reporters: “it would be a good symbol of American resolve to have a new AUMF to go after ISIS.” In the meantime, the administration continues to rely on an authorizing measure dating back to 2001 as a legal justification for military operations already being carried out to combat the Islamic State.