GOP leaders shun debate on Trump’s war powers

Republican congressional leaders support President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syria. But they aren’t ready to put the president’s military strategy up for a vote anytime soon, according to senators and aides.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) struck a deal Monday on a new proposal that would grant Trump broad powers to wage war against terrorists but give Congress far more input and checks on the president than it now has.

The bipartisan authorization for the use of military force, which would wipe out current authority for the administration, is likely to be considered by the committee later this month. It’s the closest Congress has come in years to voting on the United States’ ongoing wars in the Middle East.

But the measure is currently not supported by Republican leaders who don’t want to do anything to restrict the president — divide the GOP six months before the midterm elections.

And it is not yet clear whether the legislation can even clear committee. Two members of Republican leadership that serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Cory Gardner of Colorado are not yet co-sponsoring the measure, and a number of Democrats sounded skeptical on Monday.

“The president had full authority to do exactly what he did,” Barrasso said of Trump’s Syria strikes over the weekend. “My concern with what some members of the Foreign Relations Committee wanted to do: It’s kind of the authorization of the use of not much force."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) historically has opposed attempts to restrict the president’s war powers with new legislation, believing the White House has all the legal power it needs to conduct war. He also rarely takes gambles by bringing a measure to the floor that creates painful splits in his party. A spokesman declined comment on a "hypothetical" question about whether the full Senate will consider it.

McConnell also would want some assurance that the bill won’t fail on the floor.

“He wants to make sure, as he always tries to do, that there’s support for it,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who supports the measure. “We’ve got to convince him.”

Privately, some Republicans said it’s too difficult to bring up a war debate with Trump’s ever-shifting positions. After he repeatedly said he wants to withdraw from Syria, he ordered strikes in the wake of chemical weapons attacks allegedly committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“I don’t know how the Senate takes up any [war legislation] without a locked-in strategy from the White House,” said one Senate Republican aide.

Corker said it wouldn’t be “prudent” to talk about getting the measure on the floor right now, acknowledging he has no assurances from McConnell. And he has more immediate problems ahead of him: In addition to some Republican reservations, a number of committee Democrats also expressed skepticism of moving forward.

The bipartisan legislation has foes on the left who are concerned that the proposal includes no hard sunset, or expiration date, on the president’s authority. Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Ben Cardin of Maryland, both Foreign Relations members, described the language as an issue.

"Sunsets is a problem for me," Menendez said.

A fight to get the bill through the narrowly divided panel suggests it won’t be an easy vote on the Senate floor, either.

“I don’t really worry about much beyond having a successful vote in the committee, which has been difficult for years,” Corker said.

In 2013, Corker’s panel approved legislation authorizing strikes on Syria only to see the effort abandoned without a vote on the floor or military action by President Barack Obama. A year later, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) forced a war debate in committee, but it never reached the floor.

This time, Corker, Flake, Kaine and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) believe they have struck a balance that can find broad support.

Under their plan, Congress would have an opportunity to modify the war authorization every four years; the 2001 and 2002 laws would be replaced; and new conflicts and action against targeted groups could receive votes in Congress.

And while current battles against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda would continue to be authorized, strikes against nation states — such as what Trump launched against Assad — would not be covered.

Democratic leaders have historically been more open to a debate on military action than McConnell. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has previously voted in support of debating a war authorization and his chief deputy said in an interview that Congress has gone far too long in shirking its constitutional duties.

“It’s time. It’s long overdue,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “17 years is long enough. We are now engaged in the two longest wars in the history of the United States.“

Backers of the proposal say there is a rare opportunity ahead of them: An actual bipartisan agreement and a chairman who is totally engaged. Corker is not running for reelection, and is more likely to take a risk with a vote than perhaps a more cautious chairmen.

Given how matters of war and peace divide both parties, a debate on the Senate floor would be messy and divisive. But supporters say it’s a worthy use of the chamber’s floor time.

“It is a credible bipartisan version,” Coons said. “Those who would criticize it would have to show some alternative path.”

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