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Congressional Approval For Military Fight Against ISIS Faces Uphill Battle


And President Obama wants congressional approval to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Lawmakers agree ISIS must be stopped. But they're divided over the scope of an authorization for use of military force, or AUMF. Democrats want more limitations. Republicans want more latitude. And as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, one man is caught in the middle.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker of Tennessee has a problem.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: I don't know of a single Democrat that supports the AMF as written, OK?

CHANG: The whole thing is very peculiar to Corker because he says the White House spent so much time discussing, writing and vetting that military force authorization.

CORKER: It's a rare occurrence that a president will send over an AUMF like that and not a single member of his own party will support it, so...

CHANG: So now it's Corker's problem to figure out where to find consensus. If he changes the language to satisfy defense hawks who don't want to tie the president's hands on this mission, he'll lose Democrats, as well as some from his own party like Rand Paul of Kentucky.


SENATOR RAND PAUL: People worry about the danger of being too confining. We're not even anywhere close to that.

CHANG: At yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Paul took issue with the provision allowing the U.S. to attack any forces associated with ISIS.


PAUL: Secretary Carter, do you understand that if it were to pass as is now, there are those of us who would worry that this would be authorizing unlimited troops in 30 different nations if the administration saw fit to send them?


CHANG: Defense Secretary Ash Carter struggled for three hours to explain exactly how this resolution accommodated two goals - enough flexibility for the military and enough restrictions to ensure this wouldn't be a drawn-out war.

CARTER: We're trying to strike that balance. It's always hard to strike a balance in language. I've said before, I'm not a lawyer.

CHANG: But even the lawyers in the group suggested striking that balance is a fantasy. Take, for example, the now famously confusing ban on enduring offensive ground combat operations. Here's Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY: If we resort to just an understanding that these words mean something less than what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, then that really is no limitation at all. And I'm barely a lawyer. I practiced for about four years. But I do remember the concept of statutes being void for vagueness.

CHANG: But vagueness is what happens when trying to win over diametrically opposite camps of lawmakers. One Republican even suspected the White House was trying to placate another interest, too - Iran. Marco Rubio of Florida asked Secretary of State John Kerry whether limiting ground troops was part of the nuclear deal the U.S. is negotiating with Iran.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: I believe that much of our strategy with regards to ISIS is being driven by a desire not to upset Iran so that they don't walk away from the negotiating table on the deal that you're working on. Tell me why I'm wrong.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Because the facts completely contradict that.

CHANG: Even if lawmakers fail to bridge any of their differences, there's one reality that Chairman Corker is well aware of.

CORKER: At present, certainly whether we pass an AMF or don't pass an AMF has zero effect on what's happening on the ground - like, none - zero.

CHANG: Because the White House says although it would like Congress' buy-in, it doesn't need lawmakers' permission to do what it's doing now anyway. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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