WASHINGTON – The debate over American military action against the Islamic State, pushed to the background for some time, came to the forefront again Thursday morning in one of the last Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings chaired by Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.).
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) forced the issue by attempting to advance a plan imposing limits to the ongoing fight in Syria and Iraq, prompting a tense debate that crossed party lines in a cramped but elegant meeting room on the Capitol's first floor.
The fight again put Menendez in charge of a weighty international debate, for one of the last times before Republicans take the Senate majority in January and the New Jerseyan gives up his gavel as chairman. It also again highlighted Menendez's habit of bucking the administration, particularly in the Middle East.
With a bill on providing clean water to developing countries due up in a committee session, Paul wanted to attach an amendment declaring war on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but placing strict limits on the Obama administration's actions. That opened the door to Democrats, such as Menendez and Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), who believe Congress has the responsibility to weigh in on the latest U.S. military action, and who have been frustrated that the issue has not been brought up for debate.
"By inaction you in essence have a veto over what congress does," Menendez said. "We all want to prosecute the war against ISIL, some of us just don't an open-ended check to do so."
Menendez and Kaine each have their own versions of an Authorization for Use of Military Force (or AUMF), ones that are not quite as restrictive as Paul's. The administration has not presented any proposals, much to the frustration of Menendez and other senators.
The plans matter for both precedent and the specifics of this fight. Many members of Congress say they have a duty to vote on an issue as important as war. Kaine pointed out that three Americans have already died in the fighting.
"The most important responsibility of a legislator is to vote 'yea' or 'nay' on whether or not we are sending our young men and women to war and I think we've been derelict in that duty," Paul told reporters. "The president, I think in his arrogance, has assumed that he doesn't even need to act, so this is a very important issue and today we forced the issue."
Menendez and others also want to define what authority the president has, and to prevent the fight against ISIL from spreading. He has chafed at how the authorization for war in Afghanistan after 9/11 opened the door to other conflicts. The Obama administration has used the language in that fight to justify U.S. action against ISIL.
Menendez's plan, for example, would authorize combat for three years, place limits on the use of ground troops and only allow U.S. action in the specific region in question.
But other members of the committee said a vote as important as one on war should not be done with a brief debate – 15 to 30 minutes – on an amendment to an unrelated bill, and without hearings or input from the administration.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), warned of tying the administration's hands.
"What's the message to ISIS? Hey guys – all we're going to do is bomb you, no matter what happens?" McCain said. "That's crazy. I can't imagine anything more encouraging to ISIS."
The debate brought attention back to an issue that had been largely ignored in recent weeks, but it is unlikely to have any immediate impact.
Even if a plan cleared the foreign relations committee, it has almost no chance to get out of the Senate before this legislative session ends next week, and the House has shown no inclination to take up a bill before next year. When this session ends, all pending bills die and must start the legislative process again.
In the end, Paul relented, for today, after Menendez promised a hearing with an administration official Monday – Menendez aides could not say with who – followed by a briefing. Later in the week, the committee plans to vote on the use of force, with senators having a chance to offer amendments.
"I'm satisfied that we're going to get a vote, that's all I wanted," Paul said, "I can't ever guarantee victory, but I can guarantee that we do our duty and our duty is to debate war and to vote on it."
Menendez said he was happy that the debate was had, but even he conceded that he is "doubtful" that the full Senate will vote on whatever plan emerges. Instead, he said Thursday's debate "creates a mark of where the sentiment at least of the Senate largely is, and drives the issue to ultimately what I hope will be a successful conclusion."
It will likely be a conclusion next year, with Republicans leading the committee, and Menendez left to make his case as the highest-ranking member of the minority.