Republicans often criticize Obama for overstepping his power
But the GOP says military power is different
John McCain: "The president of the United States is the commander in chief"
They’re railing against President Barack Obama for going too far on Obamacare and immigration but Republicans are prepared to cede broad authority to the White House to fight ISIS.
It’s an interesting theme that’s developing as the administration prepares to send Congress a request as soon as Wednesday that would authorize Obama to use military force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Democrats, wary of another long war, are seeking strict limits on the use of U.S. ground forces. Republicans, meanwhile, are the ones arguing that the commander-in-chief needs room to move as he sees fit.
Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, doesn’t want to see any restrictions in the authorization – meaning no limit on the use of ground troops, the length of time the authorization can remain in force and no restrictions on the geographic area to which the new law would apply.
“If we want to constrain the president’s actions, we have the power of the purse,” McCain said Tuesday. “The Constitution says the president of the United States is the commander in chief.”
Several other Republican senators speaking in the days before language for the so-called Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, was expected to be released by the White House declined to weigh in on what they could support, but emphasized the need to give the White House as much flexibility as needed to wage this fight.
“I’m sort of a traditionalist on this maybe. I think the executive branch ought to be telling us they want flexibility,” said Sen. Rob Portman, stressing his concern the White House would take certain options off the table. “I think it’s wrong for the commander in chief to tie his own hands.”
While details are still being finalized, the White House is expected to request a three-year AUMF that places some limits on the use of U.S. ground forces, according to members of Congress briefed on the proposal.
The GOP is hardly monolithic on this issue – or any other – but many in the party do not want to see the president limited on matters of war.
And the battle against ISIS is just one example of Republicans’ willingness to grant the president wide authority on specific issues, even as they question his use of power in other instances. Many top GOP members are also pushing fast-track, or Trade Promotion Authority, known in Washington as TPA, which would allow the President to get an up or down vote in Congress – without amendments – on often complicated trade deals negotiated largely in secret by the executive branch, as long as they meet certain parameters.
So is there a disconnect here? Republicans have been furious over Obama’s use of executive power in other areas, from adjustments he made to Affordable Care Act requirements to his moves on immigration in November. The party has filed lawsuits against the president claiming executive overreach on the health care law and plan to do something similar on immigration.
Georgia GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson said the battle against extremists and the one against the healthcare bill should not be compared.
“Disliking a single-payer government health care system like the Affordable Care Act and fighting an enemy like ISIL are two entirely different things,” he said. “You’re talking about policy and direction in terms of the health care law and you’re talking about the survival of our democracy, you’re talking about terrorism.”
Distrust of the president is a common theme on Capitol Hill. Many members have long argued that the White House cannot be relied on to enforce immigration law or secure the border, so there is little point, they argue, in pushing through a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” House Speaker John Boehner said last February. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
In response to those claims, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer proposed in February 2014 to pass the immigration bill, but not have it go into effect until 2017, when a new president would be in office, said a spokesman. The GOP didn’t bite.
The dynamic opens Republicans up to questions about whether they can have it both ways, expressing alarm and distrust about how Obama uses his powers on health care and immigration while backing him on trade and – perhaps his biggest responsibility – waging war.
“It is kind of inconsistent on their part. On the other hand, presidents have always been given much, much greater leeway to use their power in international economics and in defense and security issues,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not surprising that the issues break like this.”
While the public often has strong opinions on domestic matters like immigration or health care, the same is not true for issues like TPA. That means the opposing party can claim immense distrust of the president on one issue while giving him free rein on another.
“Nobody knows what TPA is and nobody cares and therefore the fact that there’s a muddled message around it doesn’t become evident,” Kamarck said. “These lucky politicians can have it both ways, as they do with many things.”
For their part, Republicans questioned by CNN said their support for the president’s use of power on some matters was part of the job, otherwise nothing would ever get done in Washington.
“My job as a senator is to do the best that I can to pass legislation that I believe is important and is in our national interest,” said Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker, a strong supporter of Trade Promotion Authority. “Even though I may have concerns about the executive branch and the way that they would carry things out from time to time, that still doesn’t mitigate my job or alleviate the job that I have which is to try to pass legislation that is meaningful and good for our country.”