GOP Awaits Obama's ISIS Battle Plan
Corker praises the White House handling of an authorization for military force. But other Republicans remain concerned.
Discussions between the White House and Hill leaders intensified Tuesday over giving President Obama the authority to combat the threat of ISIS around the world, even as key details of the administration's proposal remained secret.
Though some Republicans remain wary of Obama's intentions, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said that White House officials were engaged in encouraging talks with committee chairs and members of leadership about the scope of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force. The administration is expected to deliver its proposal this week, and Corker noted that no one outside of the White House, including congressional leadership, had yet seen official language.
The text is not expected to include a geographic restriction -- which would limit the combat to Iraq and Syria -- that was part of a proposal from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in December. But the AUMF would last for three years and include a prohibition on "enduring offensive ground troops" engaged in the combat against ISIS, according to Sens. Dick Durbin and Chris Murphy. Bloomberg View first reported the provision, which is already encountering skepticism from some Democrats.
"We have some legitimate questions about whether they've opened this up to a loophole," Durbin said. "What's enduring? What's offensive?"
Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Foreign Relations Democrat, said of the troops language: "Part of the feedback they're getting from some members will be unless that is further defined, that might be seen as too big a statement to ultimately embrace."
Corker cautioned against latching onto any specific details until the wording is finalized, noting that in the administration's talks with Democrats and Republicans, the "language could well change."
Corker briefed Senate Republicans at their lunch Tuesday on the broad outlines of the AUMF concepts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has scheduled a conference meeting for 5 p.m. Wednesday for Republicans to discuss the plan and their concerns, Corker said.
The White House has been making calls to both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill to drum up support. And the administration dispatched White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and White House Counsel Neil Eggleston to the Hill on Tuesday to pitch the AUMF to Democrats. Corker said Monday he was hopeful that the administration would soon send an emissary to the Republican conference as well.
While many Democrats hope to limit the president's ability to deploy a large number of ground troops, potentially entangling the U.S. in a neverending war abroad, more hawkish Republicans are concerned about taking options off the table too soon.
"I don't want the restrictions that so many people want," says Sen. Jim Inhofe. "It should be without limitations … we want to have it completely open."
That balance could be difficult to achieve, Menendez said. "That's the rub here, trying to find an AUMF that can get bipartisan support, that can be narrow enough that it's not an open-ended check and a prolonged engagement and open enough so that it can meet the challenge of fighting ISIS. And finding the balance is the challenge," Menendez told reporters Monday.
Once Congress has received the AUMF, Corker said that his committee would hold additional hearings on the matter before conducting a mark-up. Given that members began discussions on the issue last year, Corker said, he doesn't not expect "a long, long process," but would not offer additional insights as to his timeline.
Still, Corker said he expected amendments to the language from members on both sides of the aisle. But he said he would keep the White House informed of those changes, keeping the lines of communication between members of Congress and the administration open. "We usually work real closely with them even on the changes that you're attempting to make because of the seriousness of what it is," Corker said.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said Tuesday he thought his chamber could take up the AUMF language as early as March.
Though House leaders and relevant committee chairs have been briefed, rank and file House Republicans, most of whom did not begin streaming back into Washington until Tuesday afternoon, were mostly out of the loop about the specifics of the AUMF. The expected proposal is likely to come up in a closed-door GOP conference meeting Wednesday morning.
Still, sources in the conference said the battle lines would most likely materialize based on ideology. Over the past few years, the conference has been marked by divisions among defense-minded hawks and libertarian-leaning isolationists. Within those groups, there are divisions about whether the administration should be granted more leeway to conduct a ground war, if it so chooses. That could leave a narrow window within which the administration can muster the necessary GOP votes to pass the measure.
Speaker John Boehner urged the administration in a press conference last week to take the lead in reaching out to Congress and the public in order to make the case for his proposal.
Complicating matters is a continuing distrust of Obama and his ability to carry out the fight against the Islamic State. Obama's recent comments at a prayer breakfast, during which he pointed out that past atrocities had been committed in the name of Christianity as well as other religions, are giving some Republicans pause about his commitment to fighting what they see as a broader enemy.
"Until he comes out and says radical extreme Islam is the enemy, he's going to have detractors in the Republican Party," said one leadership-aligned Republican House member, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal GOP Conference dynamics.
There is also a simmering distrust between Senate Republicans and the Obama administration. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says he continues to believe that while the president should have authority as the commander in chief, he feels conflicted by the president's lack of control of the situation.
"They do not have a strategy or a policy," McCain said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he had serious concerns that the White House's strategy would fail to actually contain the Islamic State.
"Don't ask me to bless a strategy that will allow ISIS to continue to survive," Graham said. "Don't expect me to bless a strategy that will allow us to train young Syrian men and send them back to certain death. I am not in that camp. I will never be in that camp."
The White House's strategy is expected to be a major component of additional hearings on the AUMF, which Corker's office is already in the process of setting up. Corker argued that the administration's overall strategy is even more significant than the language of the AUMF itself. "At the end of the day if you look at what the '01 authorization was, it was 60 words. … The concepts are what matter," he said.
Corker said he's focused on providing an open process for members to weigh in on the matter, from both sides of the aisle. "The Authorization for the Use of Military Force is one of the most important votes that people make," Corker said.
Alex Brown, Fawn Johnson and Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.