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War on Islamic State Finally Gets House Floor Debate

McGovern spearheaded the push to force a floor debate on U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Three House lawmakers wanted a robust debate on whether there should be boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria.  

On Wednesday, they got their wish. After nearly two hours of debate, the House voted down a privileged resolution directing President Barack Obama to withdraw most U.S. military personnel from the two countries by the end of the year at the latest.  

The measure, brought to the floor by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., fell far short of approval: 139-288.  

All but 66 Democrats voted "yes" and every Republican except for 19 voted "no." One member, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., voted "present."  

But for Congress' most vocal opponents of creeping American military interventionism, it wasn't really about whether the resolution could pass; in fact, the language was crafted in a way that almost guaranteed it would fail.  

McGovern, who spearheaded the effort, acknowledged at a Tuesday news conference the language in the privileged resolution wasn't nearly what he and others really wanted: A formal Authorization for Use of Military Force that followed regular order through the committees of jurisdiction.  

House Republican leaders have kept an AUMF off the legislative calendar since the matter was first raised late last year, when the U.S. began to engage in the fight against the Islamic State terror group, or ISIS.  

Ultimately, the McGovern-Lee-Jones resolution had to be written to fit specific criteria to gain privileged resolution status, which mandates House consideration within a certain, curtailed time frame. Introducing the measure through standard protocol would have resulted in its indefinite shelving.  

Still, McGovern argued his resolution would be helpful in forcing Congress to pass an AUMF: If lawmakers don't want to adhere to the absolutist deadline for troop withdrawal, do something about it.  

"If Congress had lived up to its responsibilities, we wouldn't need to be so blunt," he said in prepared remarks. "Congress needs a clear deadline. ... That deadline is the withdrawal of our troops by the end of the year. It gives this House, this Republican leadership, six entire months to get AUMF enacted. It gives this House, this leadership, six more months in which to simply do their job."  

It also accomplished something that could have value longer term. Each lawmaker who participates in House floor debate automatically has his or her sentiments entered into the Congressional Record, an enduring transcript of proceedings for each legislative day. This particular debate was no exception, culminating in a "paper trail" of member positions on a very difficult subject.  

Many Democrats and Republicans from all across the ideological spectrum came to the floor and said they couldn't support the resolution, explaining it was tantamount to "a troop withdrawal resolution" as opposed to a formal AUMF.  

But they also said they supported McGovern and company's intentions.  

"Let me first say that I believe Congress needs to do its job and pass an AUMF," said House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y. "We should have acted on this months ago, so this is the right message, but with only the highest respect to my colleague from Massachusetts, I believe that withdrawal by a date certain at this time is the wrong policy."  

Several Republicans expressed a strong desire to debate any AUMF, and spoke in favor of Congress having a very specific role in laying out a strategy to defeat terrorism in Iraq and Syria.  

"These are some of the most important and challenging issues that we face, that we struggle with as an institution," said Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., who opposed the resolution. "I know the gentleman from Massachusetts is frustrated ... in many ways I share his frustrations."  

It was one of those rare floor debates that departed from partisan sniping and predictable pontificating, though there were still moments where Democrats and Republicans couldn't help themselves. McGovern and other Democrats slammed their GOP counterparts for not taking Congress's obligation to debate a formal AUMF seriously, while some Republicans expressed outrage over floor consideration of the privileged resolution.  

"It's quite frankly pretty insulting you'd present a proposal to this body to withdraw troops and then accuse the other side to opposing the resolution as having moral cowardice," said freshman Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York. "There has to be more attention to the president's strategy to defeat ISIS, or lack thereof."  

"The president has in fact made the situation more dangerous," said Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who was one of many GOP lawmakers to criticize Obama's proposed AUMF.  

Jones told reporters following the vote that Republicans did not permit their members who wanted to speak in support of the resolution to claim any of the GOP's official allotted floor time, a sign of the status quo.  

McGovern, standing beside Jones in the Speaker's Lobby, said he just felt lucky to have won any votes at all.  

"People were telling us, 'if you get 50 votes, you'd be lucky,'" he said. "When we broke 100, I was happy."  

 

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