WASHINGTON — Congressional authorization of the U.S. war against Islamic State extremists has gone nowhere in two weeks since President Barack Obama vowed to coordinate with lawmakers on a stronger legal basis for military action, prompting growing frustration with the White House.
Republicans and Democrats say the administration isn’t prioritizing the effort, having yet to outline what it wants from Congress or to dispatch top officials to testify. As a result, congressional aides say, a new authorization to fight the Islamic State won’t happen this year and it’s unclear when it may be taken up in 2015.
“The president is now operating outside the Constitution,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., one of several lawmakers challenging the administration’s legal justification for intervention based on a 2001 authorization to fight al-Qaida and another a year later to invade Iraq.
The Islamic State group didn’t exist at the time of either vote, emerging only recently from the al-Qaida movement. They’ve primarily fought each other since.
After his party’s drubbing in midterm elections, Obama said he’d work with Congress during the current lame-duck session on a new authorization for the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria. The announcement was a nod to widespread dissatisfaction among lawmakers with the status quo even if few, like Schiff, have expressly deemed the military campaign extralegal. Even fewer want the operations halted.
Most Democrats and Republicans who’ve spoken out on the matter want a more limited and clearly defined mandate than the post-9/11 laws initially used in Afghanistan but later cited as justification for drone strikes against terror targets from Somalia and Yemen to Pakistan.
Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council, said the administration was engaged in conversations with members of both parties.
“We are strongest as a nation when the executive branch and Congress work together on matters involving the use of U.S. military force,” she said.
“Over the coming weeks, the president will work with Congress to lay out the areas where he thinks we can work together.”
The delay of congressional authorization won’t immediately affect the American war effort in Iraq and Syria. Obama insists he already has the authority to conduct the counterterrorism mission and U.S. officials haven’t indicated they’d halt military activity if lawmakers vote down any authorization bill.
But the tenuous legal rationale for fighting could become divisive over time on a national security issue both sides say should be apolitical. And for members of Congress who’ve emphasized their constitutional responsibility to declare war, their lack of action more than three months into the U.S. bombing campaign is something of an embarrassment.
Fresh off their election triumphs, Republican leaders are waiting on Obama.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., want the president to send over a draft authorization and to start working to build bipartisan support. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who will become Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman when the new Congress starts in January, has made a similar demand. His panel would be the likely starting point for the process.
The committee’s current chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., hoped to advance the cause of a new authorization this week. But he canceled a hearing scheduled Tuesday when he couldn’t get Secretary of State John Kerry or another administration official of similar stature to present the administration’s arguments. Amid the administration’s inaction, aides say Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate’s majority leader for the next six weeks, isn’t pushing the matter right now.
Senators will get a chance to ask questions of a top Obama foreign policy adviser Wednesday when Tony Blinken, the president’s choice to become the State Department’s No. 2 official, testifies at a nomination hearing.
For Congress and the administration, more pressing issues in Congress may be at stake.
Permission to arm and train Syrian rebels, a central plank of Obama’s strategy to defeat the Islamic State militants, expires next month. Congressional leaders are trying to reauthorize the program as part of a larger spending measure to keep the government running. Obama also is seeking $5.6 billion to cover the military costs. Those funds may come in an annual defense bill senators are trying to complete by year’s end.