They testified in support of an updated "authorized use of military force" and urged approval of the three-page document designed to replace the 2002 authorization for the United States' military involvement in Iraq.
"Your unity would also send an unmistakable message to the leaders of [the Islamic State]. They have to understand they cannot divide us ... and they have no hope of defeating us," said Secretary of State John Kerry. His comments were followed by similar urges to approve the authorization by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.
The authorization calls for use of U.S. forces for "enduring offensive ground operations" and would expire in three years, in time for a new president and new Congress to re-examine its feasibility and something of a concession that the mission against IS will be long-lasting. It also places no geographic limits on where the battle against IS can be taken; Carter noted in his testimony that IS units have already formed outside of Iraq and Syria.
During questioning, committee member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., suggested many senators favor the authorization but find it has few clear restrictions on the deployment of U.S. military personnel, noting, "What it didn't do, and what I don't think Democrats are willing to do, is give the president an open authorization for war or a blank check."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., added, "This has to be the region's fight against terrorism," a reference to the countries of the Middle East and their perceived reluctance, thus far, to commit large-scale resources and troops to fighting IS. "I see a real danger of a ground troop creep here."
When Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., suggested a broad and non-partisan Senate approval of the authorization, what the Obama administration seeks, may be unobtainable, and that a partisan vote would be worse than no approval, Kerry reminded him of the administration's confidence it has the legal authority for the mission against IS.
"We're convinced we have the authority. That's not the issue," Kerry said. He also argued briefly with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., over a letter sent Monday to Iran's government, signed by 47 Republican Senators, including Rubio, which suggested any deal on the containment of Iran's nuclear ambitions could be nullified by a future incoming Congress.
After Rubio left the topic of the authorization to bring up a question of whether the administration is thinking of the nuclear deal with Iran as it structures policy in Iraq and Syria, Kerry said he read the Republicans' letter with "utter disbelief," adding that a suggestion that Congress could modify an executive agreement was "absolutely incorrect."
"This letter ignores more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of foreign policy," Kerry said. "I think you have to ask what people [writing the letter] are trying to accomplish." When Rubio said he interpreted administration policy as "a desire not to upset Iran," Kerry responded, "It's really almost insulting that the presumption here is that we're going to allow [Iran] to get a nuclear weapon."
The hearing was interrupted twice by members of Code Pink, an anti-war activist group. When a woman shouted, during Kerry's testimony, "The United States is killing innocent civilians with drones," Kerry replied, "Killing more innocent people. I wonder how our journalists, who were beheaded, and a pilot who was fighting for freedom, burned alive, what they would have to say to their efforts to protect innocent people."