GOP senators fight to preserve Biden’s war powers amid tensions with Iran

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Republican lawmakers are determined to preserve President Joe Biden’s power to wage military campaigns in Iraq, even against the commander-in-chief’s wishes.

It’s a strange dynamic for members of Congress, who have long seen presidents of both parties expand and sometimes abuse their war powers even after campaigning on ending conflicts in the Middle East. Nearly 20 years after the horrors of Sept. 11, GOP lawmakers are now in the awkward position of fighting to maintain a Democratic president’s authority to conduct military operations without congressional approval.

It largely stems from Republicans’ desire to project an aggressive posture toward Iran — whose proxies in Iraq and Syria attack Americans on a near-daily basis — and concerns about the rapid destabilization of Afghanistan amid the U.S. withdrawal.

“Presidents should be authorized … to go after terrorists or other armed groups who seek to harm the United States or our personnel deployed anywhere in the world, on an ongoing basis, and to do whatever is necessary to degrade their capability to strike us — and if possible to wipe them out of existence,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Intelligence Committee and a senior member of the Foreign Relations panel.

The debate on Capitol Hill comes as the Senate is set to vote this year on a bipartisan bill to repeal authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) enacted in 1991 for the Gulf War and 2002 for the Iraq War. The bill is sponsored by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

The House already repealed both authorizations, in addition to a never-used 1957 AUMF. If the repeal measures reach Biden’s desk, it would be the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks that Congress will have clawed back its constitutional war powers.

Proponents of repeal got a major boost when Biden came out in support of scrapping at least the 2002 measure, which gave then-President George W. Bush the authority to topple Saddam Hussein’s government. It was used by subsequent presidents to legally justify military action against terror threats that only developed after the AUMF was first adopted.

At a classified briefing Monday evening for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, top administration officials argued that the 2002 authorization was functionally obsolete, according to two people familiar with the briefing. Officials were “unequivocal” that the AUMFs are not “exclusively” relied upon for ongoing operations, and that no current military actions will be impacted by the repeal, said another person familiar with the meeting.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, said after the briefing that he plans to move forward with a markup of the AUMF repeal measure before senators leave Washington for the summer recess in August. He said the information given was “helpful” in outlining the case for repeal, but he acknowledged it wouldn’t satisfy everyone.

“There are other members who have ideological issues,” Menendez said. “There’s no briefings in the world that I could ultimately provide that will deal with that.”

Most Republicans are expected to oppose repealing the 2002 AUMF, with many arguing that Congress should not deprive Biden of legal authority to protect American troops in light of a barrage of attacks from Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq. In two recent bombing campaigns against the Iranian proxies, Biden notably did not cite the AUMF as legal justification; he instead pointed to his Article II constitutional authority to defend Americans by launching retaliatory strikes.

“The president’s constitutional Article II authorities appropriately give him the power to defend our troops and our core national interests,” said Young, the Republican leading the effort to repeal the outdated AUMFs. “He’s proven that by doing that — without any exception being taken by my colleagues whatsoever.”

Still, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), an Armed Services Committee member, said scrapping Iraq-related AUMFs could “embolden” terror groups that some lawmakers assert Biden has no authority to go after. That includes al Qaeda, the terror group that was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, and which Republicans believe will reconstitute in Afghanistan once the U.S. pullout is complete and potentially expand into Iraq and Syria, where American troops are continually attacked by Iranian proxy forces. GOP lawmakers instead want Biden to develop a clearer strategy to deter the attacks, even if that includes launching preemptive strikes using the AUMFs currently on the books.

“It would be a very powerful start for the Biden administration to be very forceful and clear and unequivocally saying, we do not believe we are constrained from carrying out as many strikes that would be necessary to protect Americans against Iranian-backed militias or any militias that seek to harm us,” Rubio said. “Degrading these groups’ ability to strike America or strike Americans anywhere in the world requires sustained pressure.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a Foreign Relations Committee member, said the AUMF is necessary for troops in Iraq to “defend themselves properly,” adding: “You don’t want to have to only react after you’ve been attacked.”

But even some of Biden’s allies say that the president does not and should not have the authority to launch offensive strikes against the Iranian proxies without first seeking congressional approval. They also argue that the 2002 AUMF could not be legally employed to justify attacks on Iranian proxies.

“I think that there are some colleagues, who never want to see repeal, who are advocating that that’s the reason not to repeal,” Menendez said of the GOP push to preserve the Iraq AUMFs.

It’s no surprise that Republicans would push for a harder line against the government in Tehran. The GOP largely supported the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, which included pulling out of the Obama-era nuclear deal and imposing a raft of biting sanctions.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Foreign Relations Committee member, told POLITICO that he is planning to introduce an amendment to the AUMF repeal measure that would “make clear that there is ample authority to protect our servicemen and women and to protect American lives from Iranian military aggression.”

Such a position would grant Biden expansive authority to attack Iran over its malign activities in the region, including its nuclear ambitions and its support for terror groups that are targeting Americans. But Biden has no interest in that authority, officials say, as his administration is seeking to revive the nuclear agreement that Trump scrapped in 2018.

Democrats are expected to double down on their efforts to repeal AUMFs on Tuesday when the House Appropriations Committee votes on annual Pentagon spending legislation.

Progressive Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has led the House effort to scrub the broad suite of war powers, plans to offer amendments that would repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization and sunset the 2001 AUMF that governs a myriad of military operations around the world, including the war in Afghanistan. Lee has tacked the measures onto the must-pass defense funding bill in previous years, though the effort has not survived in compromise spending legislation negotiated with the Senate.

Pro-repeal lawmakers are projecting confidence about the prospects of breaking a GOP-led filibuster in the upper chamber when Majority Leader Chuck Schumer puts the Kaine-Young bill up for a vote later this year. Already, several Republicans have come out in favor of it. If all 50 Democrats vote for the measure, it would need the backing of at least 10 GOP senators to pass.

After that, the House and Senate would need to reconcile their bills into one large legislative package. Kaine, the lead Democratic sponsor of the effort, has said it’s likely that the issue gets resolved as part of the annual defense policy bill, must-pass legislation that will head to Biden’s desk this year. He has already discussed potential options with Lee.

“Just get it done,” Kaine said when asked about his strategy. “How can we get it to Biden’s desk promptly?”

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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