"Lives are in the balance," Sen. Richard J. Durbin told reporters Tuesday on the importance of getting the balance right in a proposed Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State terror group.
The No. 2 Democrat spoke at length to reporters after being briefed on the draft resolution presented by President Barack Obama's top aide and counsel during Tuesday's party lunch.
He detailed the administration's plans to have a broad-based authorization that would cover the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, without limiting the fight geographically to Syria and Iraq, as well as the key question of limits on offensive ground operations. The Illinois Democrat also is the ranking member of the Defense appropriations subcommittee.
How does this compare with language the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved last year? Durbin: "The starting point was the [former Foreign Relations Chairman Robert] Menendez language. Made some changes on it. We're really working with critical, important language, and it comes down to a phrase or two, and we just have to look at it very closely."
Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz. finds it unconstitutional, too restrictive to the commander-in-chief. How do you find common ground? Is a three-year time frame enough comfort? Durbin: "I like the three-year time frame. It means that it will apply to this president during the remainder of his term and to the succeeding president for one year. What it means: whoever's elected president after Obama has to start thinking immediately about the renewal of AUMF and discussing it with Congress.
"I disagree with John, obviously. John and I see the world quite a bit differently. I think the Constitution delegates to Congress the authority to declare war, and the American people speak through Congress. And if we put limitations on the president about who he can fight, where he can fight, how he can fight — I think that's consistent with the intention of the Founding Fathers."
Is the draft crafted to avoid mission creep? Durbin: "Well, that's why we always come back to the same phrase — enduring offensive ground operations. As someone noted in our meeting here, incidentally we're talking about the Department of Defense. So, there is hardly any military operation that cannot be characterized as a defensive operation, and those are exempt. What we limit are enduring offensive. I hate to get into weeds but when you're talking about the commitment of a nation to war and lives are in the balance, that's where we have to really dig in."
What does the proposal do in terms of the 2002 authorization? Durbin: "The Afghan AUMF continues, and it's the Iraq resolution that's being replaced."
Would 2001 AUMF also be placed on a three-year timeline? Durbin: "That wasn't brought up, and I don’t think that's the proposal."
Do you have concerns the White House draft would change the Senate Foreign Affairs version with regard to geographic limits? Durbin: "See now that's tricky. So, here's why it's tricky: If we limit our actions against ISIS to any locale, it really means by argument that there are safe havens they can go to and escape pursuit by the United States. I understand that. We've got to be able to pursue non-state, multinational operations wherever they threaten the United States or our interests.”
Are you comfortable with specifics tailoring to Islamic State? The associated forces phrase was very problematic in 2001. Durbin: "It is still. It is still. They’re hard to pin down. If you had asked us three years ago, 'What about the Islamic State?' people would have opposed, [questioning] 'What is it?' That just shows you how quickly the circumstances and names can change. So we've got to give enough flexibility to have the next generation of ISIS also in our target."
Both parties have said they want to see significant changes to what the president is suggesting but in opposite directions. How does bipartisan compromise happen and how long will it take? Durbin: "I don’t know the answer to that because we have not really taken a task like this on in a long, long time. The last time we came close to it was the decision to invade Iraq, where there was a lot of debate, back and forth, Democrats and Republicans. It was [then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.] and it was the Republicans who were stepping up with their own views of things. I assume it starts, the first venue is the Foreign Relations Committee, but beyond that it clearly is going to be a subject for floor debate."
Debate on war hasn't taken place in a decade. Why has it been so delayed when we're already in the war and months of work is expected? Durbin: "It is not easy but it's important. And I hope all members of both political parties will accept their responsibility. This is one of those things where we know lives are at stake – American lives as well as the survival of our enemy. So we've got to take the time to get it right but we shouldn't delay it in petty politics."
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