The Islamic State is “metastasizing” outside of Syria and Iraq, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday, urging Congress to quickly grant President Obama war authority without any limits on where the U.S. could strike terrorists.
Senators, however, said neither Democrats nor Republicans support the language proposed by the president — and Mr. Obama’s top national security aides said they would rather not get a new authorization than face a party-line vote that would show disunity.
Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he doesn’t “know of a single Democrat” who supports Mr. Obama’s request as written. Republicans, meanwhile, feel the request is too limited, Mr. Corker said, casting doubt on reaching a bipartisan compromise.
“I will say that if you look at where we are today, obviously that path forward is somewhat difficult,” the Tennessee Republican said.
Senior administration officials defended the president’s request for a three-year authorization for use of military force and its ambiguous prohibition on ground troops, saying it provides enough flexibility to defeat the Islamic State and would reassure troops and allies that America is united in its desire to defeat the Islamic State.
Mr. Carter said Congress shouldn’t restrict the war geographically, saying the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS, is expanding its reach in the region.
“The proposed AUMF wisely does not include any geographical restriction, because ISIL already shows signs of metastasizing outside of Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Carter said.
He and Secretary of State John F. Kerry said bipartisanship is critical to an authorization, saying that would send the best signal to troops asked to put their lives on the line.
Mr. Kerry said passing an authorization on a party-line vote was worse than having no authorization at all — particularly since the administration argues that it already has the legal power under the 2001 authorization of war against the Taliban and al Qaeda to strike at the Islamic State, which the administration says is an outcrop of al Qaeda.
Some members of Congress have disputed that legal reasoning, saying the airstrikes the administration has been conducting since last summer in Syria and Iraq are illegal.
Mr. Kerry said those strikes have made progress in diminishing the Islamic State’s momentum.
“Even while savage attacks continue, there is the beginning of a process to cut off their supply lines, to take out their leaders, to cut off their finances, to reduce the foreign fighters, to counter the messaging that has brought some of the fighters to this effort,” he said.
For now, there is little middle ground between Democrats and Republicans on Mr. Obama’s request, with one major sticking point coming over his prohibition on “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”
Even military leaders can’t agree what that would mean in practice. Gen. John Allen, who is leading the Islamic State campaign, previously said it could mean anything from two weeks to two years. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said last week that he saw it as a mission-based, not time-based, limitation. Mr. Carter said it prohibits a campaign like the ones in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mr. Kerry assured Congress that Mr. Obama isn’t considering a years- or even monthslong use of U.S. troops on the ground.
“I think it’s been very clear how limited it is,” he said.
Republicans said Mr. Obama shouldn’t tie his hands should he need ground troops.
Democrats, though, fear the wording amounts to a blank check they are unwilling to grant.
“Clearly there’s a need to define exactly what would be allowed,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and ranking member of the committee. “Legally, it seems there’s the potential for large numbers of U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq and Syria with the authorization as submitted.”
In another hurdle to reaching a bipartisan compromise, Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, said he will push for the war to be paid for by instituting a temporary tax.
“We cannot write another blank check for a war. We have to pay for it,” he said. “It engages every American in bearing the cost of the conflict.”
The president’s request for war permission would last three years, but Mr. Carter said he expects the fight would take longer than that. He said the three-year time period, though, would give voters and a new Congress the chance to review what is needed under a new president.
Some analysts have said given the administration’s belief that its war is authorized by the 2001 approval, the next administration wouldn’t need to come back to Congress.
The president’s plan would repeal a 2002 authorization to fight in Iraq, but would leave the 2001 authorization in place.
Mr. Menendez said the administration’s expansive interpretation of the 2001 war is a good reason why Congress should pass a new authorization tailored specifically to the Islamic State fight.
“It’s imperative we don’t shoehorn this conflict into an old AUMF. It may be convenient, but it isn’t right,” he said.
Senators also grilled Mr. Kerry about ongoing negotiations with Iran to prevent the country from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said he believes the administration’s hesitancy to put American boots on the ground is a nod to keeping Iran at the negotiating table for talks that are supposed to wrap up later this month.
“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,” Mr. Rubio said.
But Mr. Kerry denied the accusation, saying that “the facts completely contradict that,” though he declined to go into any details.
The secretary of state emphasized that any agreement reached would not be based on any level of trust in the Iranian government. Rather, it would be subject to “an adequate letter of verification, whatever that may be.”
Mr. Kerry also said he was in “utter disbelief” that 47 GOP senators sent a letter to Iranian leaders that discounted the validity of any deal reached by the administration that was not approved by Congress.
“This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of American foreign policy,” Mr. Kerry said.
After speaking for more than five minutes, Mr. Corker cut off Mr. Kerry, saying that the administration should want Congress to vote on and support any deal made with Iran.
“I’m very disappointed, though, that you’ve gone back on your statement that any agreement must pass muster with Congress. The way we pass muster here is we vote. And I think all of us are very disappointed with the veto threat and the stiff-arming that is taking place,” Mr. Corker said.