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GOP Lawmakers Reluctant To Act On ISIS War Authorization Request


And President Obama's decision last week to order up 50 special operations forces to Syria has revived calls for Congress to weigh in on the war against the Islamic State. Obama himself has urged lawmakers to vote on giving him specific authority to wage that war. But the Republican-led Congress has resisted. As NPR's David Welna reports, many lawmakers don't see what's in it for them.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Sen. Tim Kaine is a Virginia Democrat who has long argued President Obama needs new permission from Congress to wage the air war against the Islamic State. And now that the president is putting troops on the ground in Syria, Kaine says it's clear Congress has shirked its duty.

TIM KAINE: We're setting an absolutely horrible precedent that this body will come to regret with respect to handing over the ability for a president to wage a war carte blanche without a vote.

WELNA: Congress did vote 14 years ago to authorize the use of military force but only against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their enablers. White House spokesman Josh Earnest insists that resolution also applies to sending ground troops into Syria.

JOSH EARNEST: Congress in 2001 did give the executive branch authorization to take this action, and there's no debating that.

WELNA: And that's good enough for the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

BOB CORKER: As I've said from the beginning, I believe the administration has the authorities to do what they're doing against ISIS.

WELNA: Tennessee's Bob Corker says the deployment of under 50 U.S. ground forces to Syria is no reason to revise those authorities.

CORKER: So to enter into a debate when you don't see a pathway forward that may appear to show disagreement over countering ISIS to me does not seem like a prudent course of action to take, especially when, like me, I believe they have authority anyway.

WELNA: President Obama did send Congress a proposal earlier this year that would give him explicit authority to fight the Islamic State, but Republicans balked at language that barred, quote, "enduring offensive ground combat operations." They considered that tying the hands of the next president. Sen. Cory Gardner is a Republican from Colorado.

CORY GARDNER: Rules of engagement can't be twisted in a political manner to prevent our men and women in uniform from accomplishing their mission.

WELNA: At a hearing yesterday on Syria, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said nothing about taking up a new war authorization. The California Republican instead chided the president's handling of Syria.

ED ROYCE: No one believes Friday's announcement of 50 special forces will be decisive. Ultimately, it is President Obama's responsibility to step up and outline a plan to engage our partners and allies and bring stability to the Middle East.

WELNA: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry thinks Congress does have a constitutional duty to debate and vote on a new war resolution. But the Texas Republican says he understands why that has not happened.

MAC THORNBERRY: For a Republican standpoint, it is a reluctance to vote to authorize a use of military force when there is no strategy or path towards success.

WELNA: For Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, there's a less high-minded explanation for that reluctance to act.

DICK DURBIN: Many members of Congress want it both ways. They want to criticize the president, but they don't want to have it on their conscience or their shoulders that they authorized it.

WELNA: Or as Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy puts it...

CHRIS MURPHY: If this strategy blows up, Congress can simply blame the president.

WELNA: Murphy says this is not how the founding fathers envisioned the role of Congress in deciding matters of war. Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, agrees. Until more lawmakers grasp their responsibility to act, Risch says, there will be no action.

JIM RISCH: You hit a point where there's critical mass, and we haven't gotten there yet.

WELNA: And as a lot of lawmakers realize, they have little incentive to get there. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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