"Politics makes strange bedfellows” is one of the oldest adages around. These days, the prospect of another war is making for some particularly strange bedfellows in the House.
An extraordinarily bipartisan group of 35 members, hoping to benefit from the heightened attention on Congress in the session’s closing days, is pressing anew for a debate on authorizing the use of military force against the Islamic State. “Our fight isn't going away anytime soon, which is why it is high time Congress fulfills its constitutional duty and debates our role in the Middle East,” Walter B. Jones, the iconoclastic North Carolina Republican leading the effort, said in an impassioned floor speech Tuesday. Until members cast such a vote, he said, “I don't even think we have a right to criticize the president, quite frankly.”
His group includes a dozen members of the Progressive Caucus, which represents the most liberal House Democrats, and six members of the Freedom Caucus, which anchors the most conservative end of the Republican spectrum. On the surface, it might seem such an ideologically broad coalition would have considerable sway, but the opposite looks to be the case.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan has not mentioned any such debate as part of his 2016 legislative agenda and has not answered the petition of the 35 members, delivered a month ago and resent last week. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he won’t arrange such a vote during campaign season
That’s partly to provide maximum flexibility to the presidential election winner, McConnell says. But another reason is clear: After 18 months of back-channel deliberations there’s no consensus about what such an authorization for use of military force should say — a point underscored when the 35 lawmakers declare in their letter, “We do not share the same policy prescriptions for U.S. military engagement in the region.” (The hawks among them don’t want to limit the president’s options, while the doves don’t want to permit many options at all.)
Overarching all that, however, is the keen awareness among both parties’ leadership offices that members in tough 2016 races don’t want to be compelled to vote on another war before re-election.
In his Dec. 6 Oval Office address, President Barack Obama reiterated his call for Congress to authorize his efforts, thousands of airstrikes augmented by deploying 50 special forces troops to Syria to help local forces fight militants, also called ISIL or ISIS. (The request he sent to the Capitol in February, which has never had so much as a hearing, does not seek permission to send regular ground troops.) Until the Hill weighs in, Obama says his authority comes from the broadly worded AUMF enacted for combating terrorism worldwide after al-Qaida's attacks 14 years ago.
Most likely, any election-year breakthrough won’t be engineered by Jones and his Democratic partner, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. Because of the way the Senate works, their allies on that side of the Capitol will have more opportunities to force the question.
So far, the most prominent member of that group has kept his powder dry. But if Tim Kaine, the fluent-in-Spanish senator from swing-state Virginia, may have a strange bedfellows moment of his own ahead. Should he end up on the Democratic vice-presidential short list, a high-profile crusade on the AUMF could prove his ticket to the ticket — or might as easily be something he must abandon altogether.
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