WASHINGTON - The debate over U.S. military action against the Islamic State, pushed to the background for some time, came to the forefront again Thursday in one of New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez's last hearings chairing the Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) forced the issue by trying to advance a plan imposing limits on the ongoing fight in Syria and Iraq, prompting a tense debate that crossed party lines.
The fight put Menendez, a Democrat, in charge of a weighty international debate for one of the last times before Republicans take the Senate majority in January and he gives up his gavel. It also again highlighted Menendez's habit of bucking the administration, particularly on 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 Tim Kaine of Virginia, who said Congress has the responsibility to weigh in on the latest U.S. military action, and who have been frustrated that it hasn't.
Menendez complained that if the administration does not propose language for a vote and neither does Congress, then lawmakers have effectively surrendered their power to authorize war. "We all want to prosecute the war against ISIL," he said. "Some of us just don't want an open-ended check to do so."
He and Kaine each have versions of an Authorization for Use of Military Force, ones that are less restrictive than Paul's.
The plans matter for both long-term precedent and the specifics of this conflict. Many members of Congress say they have a duty to vote on an issue as important as war.
Menendez and others also want to impose limits that prevent U.S. involvement from spreading.
"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 said. "Today we forced the issue."
But other members of the committee said a vote as important as one on war should get more than a brief debate - 15 to 30 minutes - on an amendment to an unrelated bill.
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. "I can't imagine anything more encouraging to ISIS."
While the debate brought attention back to the issue, it is unlikely to have any immediate impact. Even if a plan cleared the committee, it has almost no chance to get out of the Senate before the legislative session ends next week, and the House has shown no inclination to take up a bill this year.
In the end, Menendez promised a hearing Monday followed by a briefing. Later next week, the committee plans to vote on the use of force.
But he conceded it was "doubtful" the full Senate would vote next week. Instead, he said Thursday's debate "creates a mark of where the sentiment" of the Senate stands.
The debate will likely conclude next year, with Republicans leading the committee, and Menendez making his case as the top member of the minority.