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GOP fears tied hands in Obama's plan to battle ISIS

| Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015, 9:33 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans vowed Thursday to toughen President Obama's day-old legislation to authorize military force against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi warned, “It's going to be hard” to find common ground.

Nothing underscored the yawning divide between the two parties more than Obama's request to bar “enduring offensive combat operations” from the struggle against the terror group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, and cut the heads off hostages.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said disapprovingly that Obama's proposal would “tie his hands even further” than the law does now.

But Pelosi, recalling the protracted war in Iraq, said the president “has to be commended” for proposing to limit his own power.

Obama is seeking a three-year authorization for the use of force against ISIS or any affiliates, without regard to international boundaries. His proposal would leave in place 2001 legislation approving military action against al-Qaida as a result of 9/11.

At the same time, the president would repeal legislation passed in 2002 in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. As for ground combat operations, Obama says he does want flexibility allowing rescue missions, intelligence collection and the use of Special Operations forces in possible military action against ISIS.

Failure to pass any legislation would mark a significant political defeat for Obama, with unpredictable consequences overseas at a time of terrorist threats, a confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine, and international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

Boehner was among several Republicans who said the president's plan wasn't up to the job of defeating ISIS.

“I want to give our military commanders the flexibility and the authority that they need to defeat our enemies,” he said. “And that's exactly what Republicans will make the case for as we move through rigorous hearings and oversight on this issue.”

While Obama's legislation landed in Congress with a thud, some senior lawmakers appeared to be trying to make room for an eventual compromise.

The Senate's three top Democrats, Harry Reid of Nevada, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York, have all refrained from commenting since the proposal was released, an unusual silence on an issue of such significance.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he hoped for a bipartisan measure to emerge.

Administration officials are expected to testify at hearings in support of the president's proposal, beginning after a congressional vacation next week. There is no announced timetable for a vote in either house.

Boehner, like other Republicans, said Obama has yet to produce an “overarching strategy” to deal with a terrorist threat.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., referring to U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said the “campaign isn't pummeling the enemy as it should.”

“Congressional authority is of no value if the president isn't willing to act decisively,” added the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

There was fresh criticism from Democrats, as well, but from the other direction.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland noted that the proposal would leave in place the authorization for the use of force approved against al-Qaida. If lawmakers concur, he said, “Congress could be authorizing a state of perpetual war, and giving this president and future presidents a blank check to keep America at war.”

Another Democrat, Rep. Brad Sherman of California, said the administration's proposed limitation on ground troops was not strong enough. “‘Enduring offensive ground operations' is a highly elastic phrase which the next president may interpret broadly,” he said.

Freshman Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a Marine veteran who served four tours in Iraq, said, “I am not ready to support an authorization for military force until the administration presents a comprehensive strategy to ensure long-term success.”

Pelosi underscored the extent to which the war in Iraq is influencing Democrats. Recalling legislation sought for that war by President George W. Bush, she said she voted against the measure even though she had been warned it might mean the end to any thoughts she had of being speaker. In the end, she said, “some Democrats voted for it. They have said, ‘I wish I hadn't.' ”

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