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President Obama Asks Congress For Approval Of Military Force Against ISIS


President Obama is now officially asking Congress to give its blessing to the war against the so-called Islamic State. This is something many lawmakers have been calling on the president to do for months. But, as NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports, the proposal the White House sent to Capitol Hill today already has detractors.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The war the president is asking Congress to authorize is already well underway. Since the summer, the U.S. military and its partners have conducted more than 2,300 airstrikes, hitting hundreds of targets.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, make no mistake. This is a difficult mission, and it will remain difficult for some time.

KEITH: President Obama spoke from the Roosevelt Room of the White House with his national security team by his side. The authorization the president is proposing is both limited and fuzzy - intentionally so, according to the White House. Obama is trying to strike a balance. He wants to have the flexibility to send in special forces for a hostage rescue, for instance. But he doesn't want a repeat of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


OBAMA: The resolution we've submitted today does not call for the deployment of U.S. ground combat forces to Iraq or Syria. It is not the authorization of another ground war.

KEITH: This idea appears in the president's draft under a subsection titled, limitations. It says the president will not be authorized to use the United States Armed Forces in, quote, "enduring offensive ground combat operations." That one phrase is proving problematic for congressional Democrats, including Virginia Senator Tim Kaine.


SENATOR TIM KAINE: I'm concerned about the breadth and vagueness of the ground troop language. And enduring is also a term that is not defined, and so that raises some concerns for me.

KEITH: Senator Barbara Mikulski is a Democrat from Maryland.


SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: Enduring has to have a clock to it. What does enduring mean?

KEITH: They worry it is so vague as to be meaningless. In many ways, the language from the White House is about defining what the mission is not rather than what it is. The president wants this authorization to sunset after three years, unlike those approved by Congress after 9/11 that continue indefinitely. And he says it should only cover the so-called Islamic State militants and associated persons or forces. And that's a concern for South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.


SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think they're trying to legitimize a failed strategy. I'm not going to be part of it.

KEITH: He reflects a worry among many Republicans that the president's efforts to limit the scope of the authorization will be too limiting. Obama administration officials had extensive conversations with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle as they drafted the language. But House Speaker John Boehner says that doesn't mean it's a finished product.


CONGRESSMAN JOHN BOEHNER: This is the beginning of a legislative process, not the end.

KEITH: The process could take months, and it's not clear how or if Congress and the White House will find that perfect balance that gets to bipartisan passage. But for Senator Kaine, there's relief that at last the process has begun.


KAINE: Thank goodness. Finally, six-plus months into a war against ISIL - finally we're at the point where Congress is going to take seriously its most solemn obligation.

KEITH: The White House insists the president already has the authority he needs to conduct this mission, but Obama wants congressional buy-in, and he thinks the war resolution can grow even stronger with the debate that's beginning now. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.