When President Barack Obama called on Congress Sunday to authorize the country’s war on the Islamic State, it was a reminder of a striking reality about the current politicized debate over terrorism: Many of the presidential candidates who are denouncing Obama's ISIS strategy have largely ignored the congressional process that could give them input on the issue.
“I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united, and committed, to this fight," the president said Sunday.
It's been sixteen months since the U.S. began fighting ISIS with air strikes, citing an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. And it's been 10 months since Obama requested an additional AUMF for the country’s war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
But Congress has yet to act. War votes are rarely popular, and with five senators running for president, there appears to be even less desire among lawmakers to go out on a limb.
Just one of the senator-turned-candidates is working on an AUMF: Sen. Lindsey Graham, the uber-hawkish, low-polling South Carolinian who has focused much of his presidential bid on calling for ground forces to fight ISIS. He and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced an AUMF that would authorize “all necessary and appropriate force” for the president’s fight against the Islamic State. That's a far broader AUMF than the president requested in February, when he asked for a three-year authorization of force, but vowed “no enduring offensive combat troops.” There’s a third, more cautious AUMF on the table as well, introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Jeff Fluke (R-Ariz.) authorizing military force but prohibiting ground troops in most instances and ending some previous authorizations.
None of the three proposed AUMFs have moved out of committee, with Senate Foreign Relations Chair Sen. Bob Corker arguing there aren’t enough votes.
To be sure: AUMF's don't allow senators to force the president to take more action than he'd like. But they can set up a legal authorization that would allow him, or his successor, to use the kind of force, or set the kind of limits, they'd like to see in the fight.
Sen. Marco Rubio is moving up the polls in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and California, talking tough and vowing to defeat the Islamic State. In February, Rubio said he wanted a simple authorization —one that would say: "'We authorize the president to defeat and destroy ISIL.’ Period. That’s what I think we should do". But he hasn't pushed for an AUMF in the Senate this year.
Last month, Rubio told an Iowa radio host that he'd support an AUMF if it were broad enough, but that he thinks Obama already has all the authority he needs.
"I would support an AUMF—of course it has to be properly structured. What some of the Democrats are asking for would put constraints in place that would not allow us to defeat ISIS," he said last month. "I think the President has the authority to act now. I'd be more than happy to authorize it and make it clear, but it has to be a clear authorization that gives us the ability to defeat them -- not simply to take symbolic action."
Another leading 2016 Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, previously slammed the president for not requesting congressional authorization when airstrikes began last year. Later last year, Cruz argued that a lame-duck Congress shouldn’t vote on an AUMF. But he has not worked to push for a war vote in 2015.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who has been skeptical of overseas military interventions, tried to force a discussion on an AUMF more than a year ago, advocating for ending the AUMF passed after 9/11 that the White House is currently using to fight ISIS and giving a limited one-year authorization of force to fight ISIS. But that effort failed, and Paul hasn't pushed the issue this year.
Cruz and Paul’s campaign and Senate offices did not respond to a query asking if they had plans to push forward an AUMF. Rubio's campaign pointed to the comments in his recent radio interview, but would not say whether he'd advocate or push for such a measure.
The lone Democratic presidential candidate in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) , opposes having Americans lead the fight against ISIS, and opposes the president’s proposed AUMF. He has not advocated for any AUMFs this year.