Push to repeal Iraq war powers snags in overloaded Senate

Tim Kaine and Todd Young were preparing to celebrate a historic victory this month: repealing two outdated war authorizations.

But the Virginina Democrat and the Indiana Republican learned this week that their legislation to scrap the 1991 and 2002 Iraq war authorizations has become a casualty of the Senate’s year-end scramble to pass the annual defense policy bill, lift the debt ceiling and approve President Joe Biden’s social spending plan.

Senate Democratic leaders are now exploring their options to uphold Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s pledge to hold a vote on the measure this calendar year. The House passed separate bills earlier this year scrapping the 1991 authorization, which green-lit the Gulf War, and the 2002 measure, which preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

In interviews Monday night, Kaine and Young said they expect Schumer to honor that promise. But with the calendar thinning and both chambers racing to finish critical legislation, senators are pessimistic that the Kaine-Young bill will make the cut.

“Leadership is exploring options to have a vote before the end of the year or early in 2022,” said a senior Democratic aide speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) held up what was a bipartisan agreement to vote on the Kaine-Young bill as part of the process to amend annual defense policy legislation last week.

The National Defense Authorization Act was viewed as the best chance for Congress to take the outdated authorizations off the books — an effort that Biden supports, and one that represented a rare effort by Congress to claw back its powers over matters of war and peace, rather than deferring to decisions by the chief executive.

The Kaine-Young bill was left on the cutting-room floor after Senate Republicans blocked a package of amendment votes last week — including on the senators’ AUMF repeal measure — as part of the annual defense policy bill. According to a POLITICO tally, the amendment would have likely passed with bipartisan support.

In the meantime, Democrats are putting pressure on Schumer to act before the end of the year.

“Chuck has guaranteed me a vote on this this year,” Kaine said in a brief interview. “And I get that this year could be complicated, but we’re going to get a stand-alone vote on this.”

“This is not a must-pass, but when Chuck tells me, ‘hey, you will get a vote on this because it’s the right thing for the country’ — and he feels really invested in it — whenever he tells me that, I take it to the bank,” he added. “We’ll get a vote on this.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) added to the pressure on Schumer, saying only that “the majority leader has a commitment to Sen. Kaine.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has been leading the House effort, said she was “confident that there will be other vehicles to getting this done,” adding: “We’ll keep fighting until we get it across the finish line.”

Young acknowledged that “there’s no question it’s going to be challenging,” but said “if we end up repealing 20-year-old AUMFs in early January, that may be acceptable.”

Kaine and Young were close to clinching the chamber’s first-ever vote on repealing the Iraq War authorization, but a stalemate over amendments torpedoed the vote and the Senate’s defense bill.

Instead, leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees hammered out a compromise defense bill that doesn’t address the war powers issue. Advocates of repealing the executive authorities will now have to tackle the issue separately on the Senate floor.

Bipartisan momentum has built in recent years to claw back the 2002 Iraq War authorization, which advocates say is outdated and ripe for abuse if it stays on the books. Most recently, former President Donald Trump cited the 2002 AUMF as part of his legal justification for the killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020.

This year, Biden has authorized retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq, but he has done so under his Article II constitutional authority for self-defense, rather than claiming legal justification through an existing military authorization.

Under Democratic leadership, the House has voted several times to rescind the Iraq War framework. Lawmakers most recently scored a bipartisan vote to pass Lee’s legislation to repeal the 2002 law in June.

Critics on both sides of the Capitol have also pressed to scrub the 1991 Gulf War authorization — as well as a never-used 1957 authorization for military force in the Middle East enacted amid Cold War tensions in the region.

Repealing the outdated legislation is the first step toward a broader rewrite of laws governing how the U.S. uses force and reclaiming congressional involvement in the conduct of foreign policy.

Lawmakers have their sights set on the 2001 authorization for the use of military force passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, which still governs many U.S. counterterrorism operations around the world — though it’s a much heavier legislative lift. Despite bipartisan agreement that the AUMF has been stretched beyond its initial purpose, lawmakers and the White House have yet to agree on a suitable replacement.

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