Defense Secretary Ash Carter told senators Wednesday that Pentagon officials have all the legal authority they need to conduct the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group in the Middle East.
"I'm not a lawyer, but I'm told (we do)," he joked. "I'm glad, otherwise it would be a problem."
The now 16-month military campaign against the militant group — which has steadily grown from airstrikes to deployed trainers to search-and-kill teams announced earlier this month — has been conducted without any formal approval from Congress, and without an explicit new military force authorization against the Islamic State, also called ISIS.
Pentagon planners have been proceeding under broadly written permissions granted by lawmakers in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that allow military action "in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism" against the U.S.
But even while they insist their legal footing is sound, Carter and White House officials are renewing their calls for a new authorization for use of military force, arguing that move would show American resolve in the fight against ISIS.
"I think it's time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united and committed to this fight," President Obama said in an address to the nation Dec. 6.
Lawmakers don't appear anywhere close to doing that.
"They have an AUMF," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. "It gives them all the authorities they asked for. They've said that over and over again, and I accept that.
"If they decided to go against (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad, then they would need additional authorities. And we stand ready if that's something they wish to do, to debate that. But thus far, they haven't made that decision."
Corker's committee held hearings on a draft military force authorization last spring, after the White House offered proposed language on the issue. At the time, Corker lamented a lack of support from either party for the wording, but he said he still saw value in a new AUMF.
Today, he is dismissive of the idea.
"Every person (in the administration) that has anything to do with what's happening with ISIS has stated that they have every authority they could possibly need," he said. "I was surprised the president threw it out in his speech."
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House Majority Leader, called the proposal offered by the White House in February problematic and suggested the overall strategy in the region needs a serious rethinking, not a symbolic stamp of approval from Congress.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the House Speaker, promised his caucus would revisit the issue in the future, but said he is comfortable with the existing authorities for now.
But a collection of lawmakers from both parties call Congress' inaction on the new force authorization an embarrassment and a dangerous precedent for the legislative branch.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I think a body that is so quick to sue the president over executive action would willingly cede to the president without any complaint the most sober power it has, the power to declare war," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a leading Hill proponent of congressional action on the issue.
"It wasn’t enough that ISIS was running wild in Iraq and Syria, it wasn’t enough that 10 service members have lost their lives, it wasn’t enough that an American tourist was killed in Paris," Kaine said. "And now we have a shooting in San Bernardino Bernadino, by somebody who was radicalized and might have been with ISIS. This thing is getting closer and closer."
The chairmen of both the House and Senate Armed Services committees have said that lawmakers should weigh in on the issue, but offered no workable plans moving forward. Several senators have offered counterproposals to the White House plan, but all are currently stalled.
"It's a pox on all of us for not doing it," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another vocal proponent in the Senate on the issue. "I would love to blame the president on this, but he did his part. He took too long to get it up here, but he did it nine months ago, and still we can't get a vote on it."
Kaine said he thinks the reason is simple.
"What Congress has decided to do is, if we can criticize the president but without having to vote to authorize or stop or amend or modify, maybe people won't be able to hold us accountable for this," he said. "That's what is stopping this from moving forward."
The question now is whether anything can change that. Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security expert at the Center for a New American Security, said that given Obama's insistence that his current authorizations are sufficient for limited operations, it will likely take a dramatic increase in troop deployments or military operations to convince Congress to make a change.
"If there was a local ally like Jordan that suddenly faced the risk of collapse, that would mean a very different fight," Heras said. "And that's the kind of contingency the White House wants covered."
White House officials also have voiced concerns about being drawn into another open-ended foreign military conflict, and pushed for sunset dates in their military force authorization draft. But a number of Republicans have opposed that idea, arguing it gives enemy fighters a withdrawal deadline around which to strategize.
Presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in unveiling his own new military force authorization Dec. 3, offered one other way that the debate could be jump-started.
"I want to have a discussion that will allow us to prevent an ISIS-led attack on the U.S. homeland, like the one in Paris," Graham said. "That's what this debate is about."