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Senators debate the president’s power to launch fight against the Islamic State

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    The U.S. military has been conducting limited airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in Iraq for four weeks, without congressional approval. New polls out today found a majority of Americans believe it's time to ratchet up the assault. A survey by The Washington Post and ABC News reported 71 percent of those polled now support expanding airstrikes in Iraq. In addition, 65 percent back striking Islamic State bases inside Syria. A CNN survey showed similar results.

    The administration is also trying to create an international coalition of supporting states. Secretary of State John Kerry left Washington today to travel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

    For the view from Capitol Hill, we turn to two lawmakers actively engaged in the unfolding debate. Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees.

    Senator Kaine, I will start with you since the Democrats have the majority in the Senate right now. What do you need the hear from the president tomorrow night?

    SEN. TIM KAINE, (D) Virginia: Well, Gwen, I'm expecting and, based on what I'm reading, optimistic about the president laying out sort of a crisp definition of what our mission should be to stop this admittedly serious threat with ISIL.

    And, in particular, I'm very interested in the work that the administration has been doing in the last few weeks to gather other nations who will support this effort, because they have a lot at risk. And we can't police a region that won't take responsibility to police itself. Those are some of the things that I'm most interested in hearing tomorrow night.


    Senator Inhofe, you have been critical of this president on this — this and other issues. What do you want the hear him say?

    SEN. JAMES INHOFE, (R) Oklahoma: Well, first of all, I want him to take a position and develop a strategy.

    Gwen, I have been trying to get the president to come out with a strategy on the Middle East since September of last year. Now, of course, we're wanting a strategy specific to ISIS, because that is the threat. And I — I'm very proud of Secretary Hagel for coming out and articulating this as the real threat it is to our mainland.

    And so I'm looking forward to having him come out with a specific strategy. And if he doesn't do it, I have already filed an AUMF that won't require him to do it, but nonetheless will require him to come up with a written strategy and then use all the resources.

    My concern is this. And we don't have many disagreements between Senator Kaine and myself. I have a great deal of respect for him. We serve on the same committee.

    I think the president already has the authority. I think perhaps Senator Kaine is not as sure of that. But, nonetheless, we could eliminate all doubt by having an AUMF and say, our president, you have the authority, win this war.


    Let me ask you both about that — that issue about congressional agreement to go forward in Iraq and in Syria against ISIL, or ISIS.

    Senator Kaine, do you make a distinction between consultation, talking to Congress about this in advance, and asking Congress' permission?


    I do, Gwen.

    I have a pretty strict construction view of what I think these constitutional powers are. Forgive me for being a big James Madison fan, a Virginian, but he crafted this pretty carefully, that it is Congress that initiates the decisions about whether to be in war.

    The president can take steps to defend the nation from an imminent and immediate threat. So when the president began in early August trying to protect American Embassy personnel, that's the kind of thing a commander in chief can do. But when the airstrike mission evolved to, we need to protect this dam, or, as the president said last week on TV, it's time to go on offense against ISIL, I don't think a president can wage an offensive war either under Article 2 of the Constitution or under either of the previous AUMFs without congressional engagement.

    But I do agree with Senator Inhofe said. Even if it's a close question — I have talked to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. I had lunch with the Virginia delegation today, which is very bipartisan. I'm talking to constituents. They see ISIL as a threat. And they think a narrow and tailored mission, particularly a mission of airstrikes, is something that they would strongly support.

    So, when you see that support in the public and you start to see it across the aisle, I think that presents a good opportunity for the president to come, eliminate all doubt, and make sure that everybody is behind this mission.


    And, Senator Inhofe, that AUMF, the authorization to use military force, do you know whether your — the leaders in the Senate or the House who are meeting with the president today even want a vote on this?


    Well, you know, I don't know that because this meeting that they're having right now with the president was one that was unexpected and not known by us very far in advance.

    I made a presentation to our conference about this today, and we're going to do another one tomorrow. So I don't know where everyone's going to be. I do know this, though. I was on the floor last night. I talked to some — every member I talked to was in agreement that we need to do something. The president needs to have that authority.

    And, Gwen, we don't have the luxury of time like we have quite often. They're on the march right now. They have already killed Americans. As far as I'm concerned, they have already declared war.


    Senator Kaine, he just talked about them being on the march and being a threat to Americans, but do we know if they are a threat domestically to America and whether there should be limits to what U.S. action is if that case is made?


    Well, I would hope there would be limits.

    I think an important feature of an AUMF is putting some timing and some limitations on it. The thing about the president's speech tomorrow is this. We all have access to intelligence, as members of the Senate. We get intelligence briefings. But nobody has as much intelligence and the capacity to gather the information that's most current as the president.

    And so his game plan tomorrow night is going to be informed by the full range of intelligence. And that's why we're all excited to have the president make that address and lay out the case. I do think an AUMF with some limiting factors is a good idea. I think the best process is for the president to put a proposal on the table and for us to debate it and revise it and amend it.

    That's normally the way it happens, but we will — and I am certainly encouraging the president to do that. If the president for some reason doesn't, I will contemplate the AUMF that Senator Inhofe has introduced. And there are some others that have been introduced as well.

    But I hope the president will decide that, with the public support growing, with members on both sides of the aisle saying this is a threat and we need to deal with it, that we can work together to find a common cause. That's good for the troops that we send in harm's way to know that they're carrying out a mission that has the political consensus behind it of both Congress and the executive.


    Setting aside the question of congressional approval, which may or may not happen before action happens, do you, gentlemen, Senator Inhofe, beginning with you, do you make a distinction between ground troops, the insertion of ground troops, and airstrikes, whether it's inside Syria or remains near Syria?



    In fact, my AUMF doesn't have restrictions. It doesn't have guidelines, because I think this is what the president needs to do. Obviously, it's going to — right now, there are ground troops already over there. And if it takes ground troops, whatever it takes.

    This resolution doesn't say you are precluded from ground troops, nor does it say use ground troops. It says win a war. We're in the middle of a war. By the way, it can't go unnoticed that a poll this morning came out that 71 percent of the American people believe that it's a threat to the homeland, and 71 percent of the people do not think that the president has a strategy. I hope he can correct that situation.


    Well, I would like to ask Senator Kaine about that. Then you can have a quick response also on the tail end of this, which is, how do you rate your confidence in the ability of this White House, this president to have a strategy, an overarching strategy for dealing with this?


    Gwen, I have confidence, and I'm fully expecting to hear a very clear strategy tomorrow night.

    And I think — I think one of the elements that's taken some time since — from August 8 to today has been the president's strong desire to gather a coalition of nations to support this. Remember, there are nations who face a much more imminent threat from ISIL than the United States. And we're also talking about a region that frankly has shown an unwillingness to police itself.

    Getting a group like the Arab League on board, a willingness to express their strong condemnation of these atrocities and their willingness to be engaged publicly in the effort to police their own region is very important. And what I'm hearing from the White House suggests that they have been spending a lot of time at the NATO summit and other venues doing that.

    So I think we're going to hear a strong statement and a strategy tomorrow night that includes that element of international support, which you have to take time to build. That doesn't happen automatically.


    And, Senator Inhofe, is there anything the president can say tomorrow night that will make you feel — have more faith and confidence?


    Oh, yes. Yes.

    I hope that Senator Kaine is correct in this. I hope he comes out and articulates something. He's had time to do it now. Now, if he doesn't, this AUMF does require him to do — and to come up with a strategy in writing within 15 days. It's just — I want some action.

    We don't have the luxury of time right now. I hope you're right.


    Senators Jim Inhofe and Tim Kaine, thank you both very much.


    Thanks, Gwen.


    Thank you, Gwen.


    I spoke with the two senators this afternoon, before the White House meeting concluded.

    Later, White House officials said the president told lawmakers he has the authority he needs to take action against the Islamic State group, but he would welcome action by Congress.

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