Senators raised but then postponed an effort Thursday to advance a new legal justification for U.S. military operations against the Islamic State, highlighting the difficulty of carrying out what lawmakers say is their constitutional duty to declare war.
Three months into the U.S. intervention and with lawmakers nearing a winter recess, Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sought to push through a measure defining how President Barack Obama can use military force in Iraq and Syria. But Republicans who are generally supportive of the war rebelled, objecting to blessing a military campaign through an amendment to an unrelated water bill.
The 18-member panel's meeting ended with Sen. Bob Menendez, the outgoing Democratic chairman, pulling the amendment and promising a hearing next week to update the president's current legal justification for fighting: authorizations in 2001 to fight al-Qaida and a year later to invade Iraq. Menendez spoke of a vote Wednesday.
Menendez's retreat came after his amendment prompted Sen. Bob Corker, the committee's senior Republican and incoming chairman, to try to pull his own bill promoting clean drinking water worldwide. The spirited and often confusing back-and-forth included Corker at times defending the administration and at others pounding the table with his hand and threatening to subpoena officials.
Even if the authorization eventually advances, it has little chance of the full Senate addressing it this year. Republicans said it would be ignored by the GOP-controlled House and the Senate next year when they gain control.
And it's unclear what the entire monthslong debate in Congress is having on Obama, who has said he would welcome a new authorization even though he insists he already has the necessary legal authority. Many lawmakers disagree, but few in either party seek to stop the president with about 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and hundreds of airstrikes already undertaken.
Republicans on the panel said Obama must first ask for authorization before Congress acts, a message echoed Thursday by House Speaker John Boehner. He said the strategy must include reversing the Islamic State's ground momentum. Senators also questioned the wisdom of authorizing a potentially decade-long fight without reviewing the authorization and barely any debate.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized Democrats for focusing on limiting Obama's ability to wage that war but not on empowering him to win it.
Menendez's resolution would limit operations to three years and allow ground forces in some circumstances, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press. It would compel Obama to provide Congress with a comprehensive strategy and repeal the Bush administration's 2002 Iraq war authorization.
Almost all the senators at the meeting stressed the need to speak with a single voice on the extremist threat, but they did anything but that in one of the Capitol's oldest meeting rooms. If they agreed on one thing, it was that Obama's refusal to lead the process on a new authorization created the mess they were in.
After Sen. Time Kaine, D-Va., said Congress must weigh in on Obama's "unilateral" war, Corker likened that approach to raising the speed limit so a speeding kid would then be acting lawfully.
Menendez lamented the administration's refusal, in his words, to send witnesses for a hearing on a new authorization. After conferring with Corker and other senators during a break for a Senate vote, he held out hope that Secretary of State John Kerry or another senior official might appear Monday, with the committee voting on the authorization two days later.