Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel Wednesday that passing a new authorization for the use of U.S. military force in Iraq against the Islamic State group should not be a partisan issue.
But the strongest opposition on the Hill seems to be coming from his own party.
Democrats grilled Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter on perceived flaws in the White House's draft authorization language sent to Congress a month ago. Several questioned whether the administration fully understands exactly what the plan allows, with Carter and Kerry seemingly offering different definitions of key terms.
Democrats grilled Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter on perceived flaws in the White House's draft authorization language sent to Congress a month ago.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said the draft as written presents "a real danger of 'ground troop creep' here."
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told the two Cabinet officials he worries the language amounts to "really no limitation at all" on military operations.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he has heard no support from committee Democrats for the authorization as it is now written, and indicated he is not interested in forcing through President Obama's proposal if his own party won't back the idea.
But administration officials are still pushing Congress to adopt a new force authorization, arguing that while it is not needed legally — military operations have been ongoing for eight months — it would rally domestic and international support behind defeating the Islamic radicals.
The White House draft force authorization would not back "long-term, large-scale ground combat operations" like those in Iraq and Afghanistan or "enduring" operations in the region, according to officials.
It has a three-year expiration mark, unless reauthorized by Congress, and specifically cites Islamic State fighters and associates as the targeted enemy. The draft also would repeal the still-active 2002 authorization of force in Iraq, but not the broader, anti-terrorism 2001 authorization being used for justification for a host of U.S. military operations worldwide.
Carter's and Kerry's definition of "enduring" during Wednesday's hearing dissatisfied most of the Democrats present, who questioned whether promises that the U.S. will not be drawn into another open-ended fight are enough to prevent another Iraq War.
But Republicans on the committee offered opposite complaints, saying the language as written would create too many potential limitations on a successful campaign in the region.
Obama has promised not to deploy ground troops in the region, but several Senate hawks have questioned whether the radical militants of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, can be wiped out without some direct U.S. ground intervention. They also questioned whether leaving that ground fighting to regional forces — including Iran-backed militias — makes America safer.
Carter said he believes the authorization as written achieves his two main objectives: giving the U.S. military the guidelines it needs to complete the mission, and sending a clear message of U.S. intent to stop the Islamic State's advance.
Asked if passing a "flawed" force authorization was worse than none at all, Kerry dismissed the criticism and said he believes Congress must act on the issue.
"The overwhelming consensus here is that [the Islamic State] has to be stopped," he said. "We cannot allow this collection of murderers and thugs to advance their ambitions."
When that might happen is still unclear.
Corker did not offer a timeline on potential rewrites or passage of a new authorization. Kaine, who has been a vocal advocate for congressional action on the issue, has said he hopes the measure can advance in a matter of weeks, not months.