The White House is set to ask lawmakers to approve legislation that would rule out the use of ground troops for extended combat operations against Islamic State militants, but place no geographic restrictions on the military campaign, lawmakers said Tuesday.
Obama administration officials were in the final stage of lengthy consultations with members of Congress over the draft of a new authorization for the use of military force, known as an AUMF, against Islamic State, which could be formally submitted as soon as Wednesday.
Language detailing if and how ground troops could be deployed was among the final questions being resolved and would probably be the main point of contention once the House and Senate begin formal debate in the coming weeks.
The three-year authorization is also expected to ask lawmakers to repeal the 2002 AUMF that paved the way for the war in Iraq, but not the 2001 legislation that has long governed military operations against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama declared nearly two years ago that he wanted to “refine and ultimately repeal” the previous authorizations, citing worries about leaving the U.S. on a permanent war footing. But since then he has relied on the 2001 and 2002 resolutions to justify new military operations against Islamic State.
In his State of the Union address last month, when Obama revived his call for what officials now describe as a “right-sized” authorization, he argued that the matter was not a legal necessity, but would nevertheless “show the world we are united in this mission.”
Last year, when Obama's campaign against Islamic State heated up, a divided Congress considered passing a new AUMF but was unable to agree, particularly in the run-up to the midterm election.
Now, as one of the few legislative efforts with some hope of passage in the Republican-led Congress, the new authorization has become a major test for a White House hoping to repair soured relations with lawmakers. The White House began talks last month and, at the request of lawmakers, promised to consult with members of both parties before sending proposed language to the Hill, according to the person familiar with the discussions.
Those consultations included outreach from the president, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, national security advisor Susan Rice, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston and others. The talks continued Tuesday, with Eggleston addressing the entire Senate Democratic caucus at its weekly luncheon. He was expected to brief House Democratic leaders Tuesday night.
The White House says it would not confirm details or release the text of the plan until those consultations were finished.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has been deeply involved in the negotiations, said Senate Republicans will meet to discuss the proposal Wednesday. He said the White House’s careful approach to the issue has been a welcome change; previously, he said, the White House often would call to discuss an issue just as it was being reported publicly.
“I will say in this case that there have been serious consultations, and there will be more serious consultations,” he said. “The authorization to use military force is one of the most important votes that people make. Sending it over is just the beginning of the process.”
Passing the new authorization will require a careful balancing act. After Tuesday’s briefing, some Democrats quickly took issue with language prohibiting the use of ground troops for “enduring offensive combat operations,” preferring a more explicit restriction against boots on the ground except for limited and specific purposes.
“There will be a number of us that are not going to be able to support this draft unless it gets changed,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.). “This language seems to leave a hole so big that you could drive a pretty sizable truck through it.”
Most Republicans say they would oppose any language that they see as limiting the president’s options.
“To constrain the commander in chief under certain parameters in my view is a violation of the Constitution, which calls for the president of the United States to be the commander in chief,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee. “It would be a terribly dangerous precedent if we were somehow curtailing the kind of military operations he can engage in.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday that he would oppose the resolution as currently drafted because it would preclude the U.S. from striking against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces should they attack rebel forces trained by Americans to combat Islamic State.
“I will not have my name, my fingerprints on a document that is fatally flawed when it comes to destroying ISIL,” Graham said, using another term for Islamic State.
In December, the then-Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved along party lines a resolution that would have given the president more narrow authority to pursue strikes against Islamic State, including the use of ground troops but only under a narrow set of conditions. The panel rejected an amendment offered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have restricted military action to only Iraq and Syria.
That resolution, and another offered by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), would have also required Congress renew the 2001 authorization in three years.
In a major 2013 speech at National Defense University, Obama said his goal was “to refine, and ultimately repeal,” the 2001 authorization. But the new proposal leaves it untouched.
Democrats said they might seek to amend the proposal to include language to put that authorization on the same three-year window as the new proposal, which would require a future Congress and president to revisit it, or perhaps merge the two in a new comprehensive authorization. But doing so would be difficult given Republican opposition.
The White House expects to continue pressing members of Congress, particularly Democrats, to ensure passage of the plan.
Murphy, who first came to Congress in the 2006 Democratic wave fueled by opposition to the Iraq war, said Obama has shown “that he can be very persuasive among Democrats when it comes to his foreign policy priorities.” But Murphy said he would approach the debate with great skepticism.
“For me this is not a matter of doubting whether this administration is committed to keeping ground troops out of the Middle East. It’s really a question of what happens next,” he said. “There’s going to be a limit to the president’s persuasive power on this issue because it may not be just about his policy. It may be about the policy of the next administration as well.”
Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.