House Balks at Restricting Use of Force

Despite a rocky path ahead, proponents vow to push changes to war authorization.

Rep. Barbara Lee, accompanied by fellow House Democrats, gestures during a news conference on June 16, 2016.
AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke
July 19, 2017, 8 p.m.

Lawmakers who want Congress to review a 16-year-old war-authorization bill that gave the president blanket authority to use force against terrorist groups were dealt a setback Wednesday when House Republican leaders struck down a measure that would have repealed the legislation. But opponents vow that the push won’t end there.

Last month, an amendment from Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee that rescinded the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force was unexpectedly added to a defense appropriations bill with bipartisan support. It was a rare victory for proponents of an updated AUMF, who argue the one passed after 9/11 does not apply to current conflicts abroad. Following procedural concerns, however, the House Rules Committee quietly removed the provision Tuesday night.

Lee harshly criticized the move, accusing House Speaker Paul Ryan of “undermining the democratic process” and acting in “an autocratic manner.” Trying to force Congress into taking a war vote has never been an easy proposition, and Lee’s amendment would have been the quickest way to jump-start the debate over whether lawmakers should approve the use of force. But even with a steeper climb now ahead, Lee and her allies are still actively looking for other avenues to introduce new AUMF legislation.

“It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road,” Lee said at a press conference. “We need to step up … and finally have this debate.”

For her next steps, Lee wants the House Foreign Affairs Committee to take up an AUMF bill. Lee said that she spoke as recently as last week with Ed Royce, the panel’s GOP chairman. According to Lee, Royce did not support her amendment specifically, but is open to the concept of a new AUMF. The committee is scheduled to have an AUMF-related hearing next week.

“The chairman is having discussions with both Republicans and Democrats about what an updated AUMF might look like,” said a senior House GOP aide. “Next week’s hearing is a piece of that process that I expect to continue into the fall.”

Lee also said she would continue to explore her options in the Rules Committee. The panel replaced Lee’s amendment with a provision from Republican Rep. Tom Cole that was part of the National Defense Authorization Act the House passed last week. Cole’s language required the administration to provide a report to Congress on its strategy for the war on terror, including “analysis of the adequacy of the existing legal framework to accomplish the strategy.”

Cole, who supported Lee’s amendment, told reporters that he wasn’t aware that his provision would take its place in the appropriations bill. But Cole said he still sees the move as “progress” and that he senses a growing appetite for this debate among members from both parties.

“It achieved its objective,” Cole told reporters of Lee’s amendment. “We may not have gotten the AUMF vote, but we certainly did get some attention and refocused the leadership and relevant committees on their job.”

While they may have gotten the attention of House leadership, they will still need to get them fully on their side. Ryan has generally spoken in support of an updated AUMF. But since war authorization is under the jurisdiction of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he argued that an appropriations bill was not the right process for Lee’s amendment to go through. AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, also called Lee’s provision “irresponsible” because the amendment would have effectively repealed the 2001 AUMF without providing a replacement.

“There is a way to have this debate but an amendment that endangers our national security is not it,” Strong said in an email.

On the other side of the Capitol, the push for a new AUMF is also moving along slowly. In May, Sens. Jeff Flake and Tim Kaine introduced legislation that would repeal the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations and replace them with a measure that would provide the administration with the ability to engage in military action against al-Qaida, IS­IS, and the Taliban for five years.

Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the panel was set to have a private briefing with administration officials about the AUMF this week, but that it had to be postponed for at least a week due to scheduling conflicts.

“I don’t know if there will be opportunities in this work period or not,” Cardin told reporters. “But I do think there’s going to be an effort made.”

Cardin also said that he has not been in contact with any members of the House about the matter, but that he and Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations panel, believe their committee “is the best forum for there to be serious discussions” about a new AUMF.

“I am aware there are other pieces that are moving forward,” Cardin said. “I think it’s going to be challenging to do the right thing under the most ideal circumstances. But if you use a vehicle without full committee deliberations … the results will not be what we need.”

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