TIME Military

Fighting the Half-In War

Obama Asks Congress to Authorize War Against Islamic State
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images President Obama discusses his draft resolution seeking congressional support in the war on ISIS flanked by, from left, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Obama opts for a “limited” military campaign against ISIS

Washington irresolution when it comes to waging war has become so feckless that the White House and Congress now engage in a paper chase that lets lawmakers vote on combat without the political risk that would accompany their declaration of war.

That’s why President Obama’s dispatch of his “AUTHORIZATION FOR THE USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES” is less than the capital letters might suggest. In fact, the draft makes clear that he is only seeking “the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

The war against ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, makes explicit a Presidential bet: “…in this campaign,” his draft resolution reads, “it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground instead of large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces.”

His language expressly rules out “the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” In an accompanying letter to Congress, he says U.S. ground troops would be restricted to rescuing downed allied troops, to “take military action” against ISIS leaders, and for “missions to enable kinetic strikes.” Small numbers, in other words.

“With our allies and partners,” Obama said Wednesday at the White House, “we are going to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”

But his draft resolution also acknowledges that ISIS leaders “have stated that they intend to conduct terrorist attacks internationally, including against the United States, its citizens, and interests.”

Hard to understand—if Obama means what he says in that passage—why he thinks it wise to subcontract out the bulk of the responsibility for defeating this threat to America to non-Americans.

Then again, he may simply be appropriating such language because he’s caught in the threat-inflation mindset that has tainted much of the debate over the danger posed by ISIS. Fundamentally, it’s little more than a pipsqueak guerilla army outfitted with pickup trucks, AK-47s and a keen sense of the value of well-produced social-media posts. Congress is just as guilty on that charge, pumping the bellows of war against what basically is a barbarian horde.

“I’m concerned that the president is more focused on threading a political needle here rather than how to be successful in beating ISIS,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN.

If ISIS represents a threat to the nation, perhaps a declaration of war is warranted. If not, perhaps sitting on the sidelines makes more sense. After all, this conflict now roiling the Middle East boils down to a fight between the Shiite (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) branches of Islam. Any role played by outsiders is likely to do little to change the ultimate outcome in such a religious war.

The founders of the U.S. intended that waging war would be a joint enterprise, with the President serving as commander in chief after Congress had declared war. Sure, there are times when a chief executive can’t wait, but Vietnam and Afghanistan each dragged on for more than a decade, and Iraq nearly as long, without Congress bothering to declare war (don’t worry, Iraq’ll be able to catch up in this latest iteration).

It may seem to be only a matter of rhetoric, but a declaration of war by the United States packs a profoundly different punch than a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force. It means the nation is committed to victory. The United States was committed to something in Afghanistan, and Iraq the first time around, but it surely wasn’t victory. The public senses this, and, as a result, the nation ends up fighting its wars tepidly.

Obama has made clear he believes he doesn’t need Congress to approve this retooled authorization for the use of military force. After all, he has been bombing ISIS for six months under authorizations passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

Both the White House and Capitol Hill get something out of the deal. Obama gets to outline his “limited” military goals. Congress gets to play warlord, without declaring war. The only U.S. party all-in on the conflict, as has become customary, are the young men and women who will risk everything to carry out their nation’s half-hearted orders.

TIME Congress

Congress Passes Keystone Bill, Sets Up First Veto in 5 Years

Congress passed a bill to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, setting up the first veto since 2010 and only the third in the Obama presidency.

Keystone — the first priority of the new Republican Congress — has become one of the highest-profile environmental debates in the country and could pose problems for some Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential cycle. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, has declined to take a position until her former agency completes its review of the $8 billion pipeline.

Republican glee was evident even before the House passed the bill 270-152. Neither the House nor the Senate has enough votes to overcome a potential veto.

“Instead of listening to the people, the President is standing with a bunch of left-fringe extremists and anarchists,” said House Speaker John Boehner in a press conference before reporters. “The President needs to listen to the American people and say, ‘Yes, let’s build the Keystone pipeline!’”

House majority leader Kevin McCarthy then came to the lectern after the cries of “hear, hear” died down. “I’ll pause for a moment so you can keep writing that down,” he joked.

The pipeline would help link up to 830,000 Alberta barrels a day down to Gulf Coast oil refineries. With oil prices near $50 a barrel, however, the 1,179-mile pipeline will likely have less of an impact on both the environment and economy by lowering the chance that it will be completely utilized. The State Department reported last year that the pipeline would indirectly and directly support around 42,000 jobs over two years, but would only employ around 50 people once the pipeline was functional.

But the pipeline is popular — polls show that nearly 60% of Americans agree with the GOP’s position on TransCanada’s six-year project — and Republicans will continue to use it to drive divisions between Democrats.

“Once the President vetoes Keystone, Republican 2016 hopefuls can begin to use it as a clear example of Washington gridlock and obstruction at its best and start the conversation that the White House is truly the problem blocking progress,” says Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant. “The move allows Republicans to show they would take swift action on this and then compare Hillary Clinton’s waffling on the issue as an example of more posturing rather than getting something positive done.”

TIME The White House

10 Vetoes That Shaped Recent Political History

With Congress now controlled by Republicans, President Obama is getting his veto pen ready, starting with a bill to approve the Keystone oil pipeline. Though he vetoed two bills in his first term, Obama had not participated much in this distinctive American political ritual. Here's a look back at some interesting and important vetoes in recent history.

TIME Foreign Policy

The Five Words That Democrats Don’t Like in Obama’s War Powers Request

US President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel hold press conference at White House
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images President Barack Obama speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after a meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C. on Feb. 9, 2015.

The White House says it's "intentionally" fuzzy.

One phrase in President Obama’s new request for congressional authority to fight Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq is causing a backlash among Democrats: “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

“I just think ‘enduring’ is too ambiguous,” says Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Democratic Whip. “’Offensive’ is uncertain. As someone noted, you’re dealing with actions by the Department of Defense, which can always be classified as defensive. So we have some work to do.”

The phrase, according to California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, is meant to signal that President Obama wouldn’t commit the country to another war like the one he campaigned against in 2008.

“It’s another way of saying this won’t be Iraq Part II or Afghanistan all over again,” he says. “Beyond that, it doesn’t tell us very much because what does ‘enduring’ mean? And what does ‘offensive’ mean?”

The word “enduring” is particularly vague in this context: as Bloomberg noted, the 13-year Afghanistan war was named Operation Enduring Freedom. For some Democrats, the phrase in Obama’s authorization for use of military force—known as an AUMF—harkens back to the Vietnam war.

“It’s language that is of concern to me in that it seems oddly open-ended,” says Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which will debate the resolution. “As the generation who remembers the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, the lesson learned there is you want tight language when you’re authorizing military intervention.”

“I have no reason to believe this president would ever do that action, but he’s citing language that was passed in his predecessor’s tenure that is 13 years old,” he added. “So we have to be cognizant of the fact that whatever we pass will survive this presidency. Therefore we have to write it in a way that is as tight and focused as we need it to be.”

The Obama Administration has already sent around 2,300 airstrikes against ISIS for the past six months under congressional authority the Bush Administration received in 2001 and 2002 to attack Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11. But Obama has called ISIS a “different type of enemy” that requires a new legal authority to defeat. The requested authorization is more limited than the ones currently used as it sets a three years “sunset” and repeals the 2002 AUMF, but it doesn’t set a geographical limit to Syria and Iraq as some like Schiff and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul had hoped.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the language in the resolution is “intentionally” fuzzy to ensure there aren’t “overly burdensome constraints” on the president as he responds to unexpected events.

Some top Republicans agree, arguing that the president should not be constrained by Congress in fighting Islamic militants, which are responsible for the death of four Americans and control roughly double the size of Massachusetts in Iraq and Syria.

“The reality is that ISIS is a brutal terrorist army that does not respect timelines or boundaries,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul. “The president’s proposal will weaken the authority of the president to defeat ISIS by limiting, not expanding, our ability to rollback and destroy the violent Islamist extremists that threaten our nation.

TIME White House

Obama Asks Congress for Permission to Keep Fighting ISIS

President Obama asked Congress Wednesday for authorization to continue fighting Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, though lawmakers are already raising questions about the details of the plan.

In his request, Obama says ISIS is responsible for the death of four Americans and poses “a grave threat” to Middle East stability and to the national security interests of the U.S. and allies. The Administration has been fighting ISIS under congressional authority the Bush Administration received in 2001 and 2002 to attack Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11. Obama has called ISIS a “different type of enemy” that requires a new legal authority to defeat.

Obama made clear that the authority he is asking for—known as an Authorization for Use of Military Force or an AUMF—would not ensnare a weary nation into the type of war he campaigned against in 2008. “My Administration’s draft AUMF would not authorize long‑term, large-scale ground combat operations like those our Nation conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he wrote. “Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations.”

The authorization, which is under three pages, will end in three years and does not allow “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” It defines the enemy as “organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside [ISIS] or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.” It would repeal the 2002 authorization, but would not limit the fight to Iraq and Syria as some had hoped.

The AUMF will face opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. House Speaker John Boehner cautioned that the draft was an “important step forward” but only the “beginning of a legislative process” that would include hearings and mark-ups of the resolution. He also said that he hasn’t seen a strategy put forward by the Administration that accomplishes its goal to “degrade and defeat” ISIS. “We have an awful lot of work to do,” he said.

Senate Democrats, who were briefed by Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and legal counsel Neil Eggleston on Tuesday, have already begun to question what exactly the Administration means by “enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

“What’s enduring? What’s offensive?” Illnois Sen. Dick Durbin told National Journal.

TIME Military

Obama Requests War Powers From Congress to Fight ISIS

US President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel hold press conference at White House
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images President Barack Obama speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after a meeting in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C. on Feb. 9, 2015.

Obama said the Islamic State "poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria and the broader Middle East and to U.S. national security."

(WASHINGTON) — President Barack Obama asked Congress Wednesday to formally authorize military force against the Islamic State group, arguing the militants could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland if their violent power grab goes unchecked and urging lawmakers to “show the world we are united in our resolve to counter the threat.”

The president elected on a promise to end America’s wars is sending Congress a proposed joint resolution to authorize military force against the swift rise of Islamic State extremists, who are imposing violent rule across Iraq and Syria and have brazenly killed U.S. and allied hostages in brutal online propaganda videos.

In a five-paragraph letter to lawmakers accompanying the three-page draft resolution provided to The Associated Press, Obama said the Islamic State “poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria and the broader Middle East and to U.S. national security.”

“It threatens American personnel and facilities located in the region and is responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller,” he said, listing the American hostages who died in IS custody. “If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland.”

Obama plans to speak on his request from the White House Wednesday afternoon.

Obama’s proposal launches an ideological debate over what authorities and limitations the commander in chief should have in pursuit of the extremists, with the shadow of lost American lives hanging over its fate. Confirmation of the death of 26-year-old humanitarian worker Mueller on the eve of Obama’s proposal added new urgency, while the costly long-running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a caution to some lawmakers against yet another protracted military campaign.

Obama is offering to limit authorization to three years, extending to the next president the powers and the debate over renewal for what he envisions as a long-range battle. He is proposing no geographic limitations where U.S. forces could pursue the elusive militants. The authorization covers the Islamic State and “associated persons or forces,” defined as those fighting on behalf of or alongside IS “or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”

Obama’s resolution would repeal a 2002 authorization for force in Iraq but maintain a 2001 authorization against al-Qaida in Afghanistan, although Obama said in his letter to lawmakers his goal is to refine and ultimately repeal that authorization as well.

Obama’s proposal bans “enduring offensive combat operations,” a novel term in military force authorizations. Its ambiguity is designed to bridge the divide between lawmakers opposed to ground troops and those who say the commander in chief should maintain the option.

Obama said his draft would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations like those deployed in the past to Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing those battles should be left to local forces instead of the U.S. military.

“The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership,” Obama said, using an acronym for the group. “It would also authorize the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.”

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he appreciated the president seeking the authorization and would quickly begin holding “rigorous hearings” on the White House request.

“Voting to authorize the use of military force is one of the most important actions Congress can take, and while there will be differences, it is my hope that we will fulfill our constitutional responsibility, and in a bipartisan way, pass an authorization that allows us to confront this serious threat,” Corker said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the provision would allow special operations missions, such as potential raids targeting Islamic State leaders and the failed attempt last summer to rescue the 26-year-old Mueller and other hostages held by the group. “It’s impossible to envision every scenario where ground combat troops might be necessary,” Earnest said in the White House’s first interview laying out its case for the resolution.

“The president believes this sort of strikes the right balance of enforcing what he has indicated is our policy, while preserving the ability to make some adjustments as necessary,” Earnest told The Associated Press.

Obama’s draft resolution opens with a list of declarations against the Islamic State’s “depraved, violent, and oppressive ideology,” including its seizure of significant territory in Iraq and Syria, its intention and capability to expand its reach, mass killings of Muslims who don’t subscribe to its beliefs, genocide against other religious groups and violence against women.

Obama argues the congressional authorizations President George W. Bush used to justify military action after 9/11 are sufficient for him to deploy more than 2,700 U.S. troops to train and assist Iraqi security forces and conduct ongoing airstrikes against targets in Iraq and Syria. Critics have said Obama is overstepping outdated authorities to target the new threat from militants imposing a violent form of Sharia law in pursuit of the establishment of an Islamic state.

Obama cast the vote as an important message to America’s allies and enemies. “I can think of no better way for the Congress to join me in supporting our nation’s security than by enacting this legislation, which would show the world we are united in our resolve to counter the threat posed by ISIL,” he wrote to lawmakers.

Presidential aides have consulted privately with lawmakers from both parties ahead of unveiling the plan publicly in hopes of lining up support, despite the political divisions that have deadlocked Washington in Obama’s second term. In anticipation of debate and attempts to amend the resolution, Earnest called the offer a “starting point for conversations to take place.”

Earnest said the language limiting ground troops was designed not just for domestic political considerations, but to take in the viewpoint of leaders in Iraq and members of the U.S.-Arab coalition targeting IS uncomfortable with the idea of a large deployment of U.S. forces. He also said the lack of geographic limitations will allow pursuit of the extremists beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. “We wouldn’t want to leave them with the impression that they could go somewhere else to get a safe haven,” he said.

Earnest also argued the three-year window would give the military time to carry out its strategy before Congress starts debating a renewal. The spokesman said the White House hoped the authorization would serve as a model for the next president and a new Congress when that time comes.

“The language in here should not be construed as a belief by the president that we’ll have defeated and ultimately destroyed ISIL in three years,” Earnest said.

TIME Congress

Republicans Point Fingers as Congress Approaches Funding Deadline

John Boehner Holds Weekly Press Briefing At Capitol
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Speaker of the House John Boehner holds his weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 5, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Congress is barreling towards a crucial end-of-the-month deadline without a plan to fund the Department of Homeland Security.

Top Republicans on Capitol Hill are already blaming each other. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that the other chamber is now primarily responsible for finding a way forward.

“I think it’d be pretty safe to say we’re stuck because of Democratic obstruction on the Senate side,” said McConnell, who put a House-passed bill up for a vote three times last week and failed due to a Democratic filibuster. “And the next step is obviously up to the House.”

“The House has passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and block the President’s unilateral executive action on immigration,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told CQ Roll Call. “Now, the pressure is on Senate Democrats who claim to oppose the President’s action, but are filibustering a bill to stop it.”

Last year, Congress agreed to extend funding for all aspects but DHS for a full fiscal year over Republican resentment that the agency would carry out Obama’s November executive actions on immigration. Removing those three million immigrants now protected from deportation could add an additional cost to the $40 billion bill of $20 billion to $25 billion, reports Politico.

Congress has until Feb. 27 before DHS runs out of funding, forcing as many as 30,000 government employees to go on furlough, according to Secretary Jeh Johnson.

TIME Foreign Policy

Three Big Questions About Obama’s Military Force Request

John McCain
J. Scott Applewhite—AP Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015.

The Obama Administration has waged nearly 2,300 airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria for the past six months to the tune of around $8.3 million a day.

Nevertheless, top members of Congress expect the President to ask this week for authorization to fight ISIS.

At issue is whether or not the Obama Administration can continue to attack ISIS under congressional authorizations the Bush Administration received in 2001 and 2002 to attack Iraq and the perpetrators of 9/11. The Pentagon has made clear that the Administration can claim the authority to fight “associated forces” of al-Qaeda in countries like Mali, Libya, and Syria.

But President Obama called in November for specific authority for ISIS, which split from al-Qaeda last year, calling them a “different type of enemy.” Republicans have said that Obama hasn’t yet asked for a new authorization for use of military force—or AUMF—because the Administration doesn’t yet have a strategy for defeating ISIS, which has gained global attention for broadcasting medieval brutality with 21st century technology.

Here are three major questions the Administration is expected to address in its request to Congress.

Will it allow combat troops on the ground?

At the end of 2014, the then-10 Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced a bill that would ban sending ground troops to fight ISIS unless they were needed to protect U.S. forces and citizens from an “imminent danger” or to gather intelligence and assist allies. That proposal, put forward by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, is similar to a House Democratic AUMF proposal, which would also allow special operations forces. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she is a “blanket no” on sending combat troops on the ground.

Foreign policy hawks, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, are the biggest backers of boots on the ground. Graham recently said 10,000 U.S. forces would be needed to defeat ISIS, which controls an area roughly double that of Massachusetts. And while many Republicans may live in the McCain camp, those elected as Tea Partiers are all over the map: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is opposed to ground troops, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is open to the prospect and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul largely supports the Democrats’ provisions limiting their use.

Overall, 55% of Americans believe the U.S. should not send ground troops to fight ISIS, according to an October Pew survey, compared to 39% of Americans who favor it.

How long will it last?

Pelosi said last week that the Administration is focused on a three-year timeframe, which would put the Administration’s request in line with the proposals of Menendez and Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who put forward his own AUMF plan. There are some Senate Democrats like Tom Udall of New Mexico and Tim Kaine of Virginia who have argued for an even stricter “sunset” of one year. With the exception of Paul, who also prefers one year, most Republicans have advocated for an expanded time frame.

Will it be constrained to Iraq and Syria?

Some lawmakers such as Paul, Udall and Schiff want to restrict the Administration’s authorization to Iraq and Syria. But Menendez’s plan would only require the President to submit a report on the geographic scope of the military operations. McCain and other hawks want the Administration to have the flexibility to fights ISIS wherever they are.

TIME White House

Obama Criticizes the Filibuster, Just as Democrats Start Using It

President Obama speaks on budget
Samuel Corum—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 2, 2015.

President Barack Obama argued in a new interview that the Senate should all-but eliminate the use of the filibuster, just as Democrats in the upper chamber have begun to make use of it.

In an interview with the online policy site Vox, Obama argued that the now-routine requirement that a measure get 60 votes to pass the Senate is causing legislative gridlock and leading to polarization.

“Probably the one thing that we could change without a constitutional amendment that would make a difference here would be the elimination of the routine use of the filibuster in the Senate,” he said. “Because I think that does, in an era in which the parties are more polarized, it almost ensures greater gridlock and less clarity in terms of the positions of the parties.”

The interview was published just one week after Democrats used the filibuster to block a bill that would attempt to undo Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration. The bill failed on a 51-48 vote, gathering a simple majority but falling far short of the 60-vote threshold. (Of course, even if the bill had gotten through Congress, Obama would have vetoed it.)

Obama couched his criticism of the filibuster in sweeping constitutional terms.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution that requires it,” he said. “The framers were pretty good about designing a House, a Senate, two years versus six-year terms, every state getting two senators. There were a whole bunch of things in there to assure that a majority didn’t just run rampant.”

The President has flip-flopped not just on the filibuster but on how it relates to gridlock. As a senator in 2005, Obama argued that changing the Senate rules to reduce the use of the filibuster would only lead to more “bitterness and gridlock.”

But as President he supported a move by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid to eliminate the filibuster on most nominations, which allowed him to get key judges and officials confirmed while his party still controlled the Senate.

TIME Foreign Policy

Democrats Plan to Skip Israeli Leader’s Speech to Congress

Biden and prominent House Democrats bow out of Benjamin Netanyahu speech

(WASHINGTON)—Vice President Joe Biden joined three prominent House Democrats on Friday when his office said he won’t attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next month, as backlash grows over House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite the Israeli leader without consulting President Barack Obama.

The announcement comes amid deep White House irritation over Netanyahu’s decision to accept an invitation from Boehner, without either party consulting the Administration. The White House blasted the move as a breach of diplomatic protocol and said President Barack Obama would not meet with Netanyahu during next month’s visit.

But Biden, as president of the Senate, would typically have attended a joint meeting of Congress, taking his familiar seat just behind the speaker’s podium. Whether Biden would still carry out his ceremonial duties became the focus of increased speculation this week as some Democratic lawmakers said they planned to skip the March 3 speech.

On Friday, Biden’s office confirmed that the vice president was expected to be abroad during Netanyahu’s visit. Biden’s office did not announce any details of where the vice president would be traveling, but insisted the unspecified trip had been in the works before the prime minister’s speech was announced.

Biden has only missed one prior joint meeting of Congress: a 2011 address to lawmakers by former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whose speech coincided with another overseas trip by the vice president.

Reps. John Lewis of Georgia, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon also said they won’t attend Netanyahu’s March 3 speech.

Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, said Thursday that Boehner’s unilateral invitation to Netanyahu was “an affront to the president and the State Department” that cannot be ignored. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Thursday he was “very disappointed that the speaker would cause such a ruckus” among members of Congress. He called the speaker’s actions “unprecedented.”

Blumenauer, a well-known liberal and advocate of alternative energy, called on Boehner last week to cancel the joint session with Netanyahu. If the speech goes forward, “I will refuse to be part of a reckless act of political grandstanding,” Blumenauer said.

The Constitution vests the responsibility for foreign affairs in the president, Blumenauer said, adding that “it’s deeply troubling that the speaker is willing to undercut diplomacy in exchange for theatrics on the House floor.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Thursday that “support for Israel has always been a bipartisan issue, and it always should be.”

Butterfield also criticized Netanyahu, saying that by accepting Boehner’s invitation without talking to Obama, the prime minister had “politicized” his visit to the United States.

Netanyahu’s speech is expected to focus largely on Iran — and its nuclear program — amid delicate negotiations involving the United States, other Western powers and Tehran. Netanyahu’s acceptance of Boehner’s invitation has infuriated the White House and many congressional Democrats.

Netanyahu is a critic of administration negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and some Democrats fear the Israeli leader will use the opportunity to embarrass Obama and further his own campaign for re-election.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she plans to attend the speech.

“It is really sad that it has come to this,” Pelosi said Thursday, adding that “as of now, it is my intention to go.”

Butterfield and Lewis both said their decisions to skip the speech were personal and were not part of an organized boycott.

“I can emphatically say it is not an organized effort,” Butterfield said, adding: “The only thing I can control is my attendance.”

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