The Trump administration has made clear that it believes it has all the legal power it needs to continue waging its current military campaigns abroad. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers in both parties from pressing forward with a new war-authorization bill.
Last week, the Defense and State Departments sent letters to Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine stating that they have the ability to keep U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria indefinitely under a pair of Authorization for Use of Military Force measures Congress approved in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Kaine and others on Capitol Hill have long argued those authorizations are outdated and need to be replaced.
Lawmakers have tried time and again in recent years to reassert their authority on this matter to no avail. Still, Foreign Relations Committee senators say legislation to repeal and replace the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations is gradually progressing as more members join in on the negotiations and signal an increasing willingness to compromise.
“It’s a slow grind, but believe it or not, it’s still moving along in a positive way,” Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said. “I don’t want to, you know, oversell here, but we’re getting to a pretty good place.”
Kaine said activity on the AUMF bill he introduced with Republican Sen. Jeff Flake last year was “dormant” for the last few months, but that right before the Senate left for recess last week, more members of the committee began to express interest in the legislation. Kaine noted that one Democrat and one Republican had been added to the “working group,” but declined to specify who. Flake said there are no new cosponsors yet and the working group still isn’t fully formed.
The main hurdles in crafting new AUMF legislation remain largely the same: geography and time. The 2001 version gave the president blanket authority to use force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, while the 2002 resolution was specific to Iraq. Kaine and Flake’s legislation is narrower. Their AUMF would provide the administration with the ability to engage in military action against al-Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban, and would expire after five years.
The Foreign Relations Committee held public and private hearings with administration officials on the AUMF last year. Before a bill markup occurs, senators involved in the discussions say they are still tweaking some of the language on the bill and need further input from the administration on some legal definitions. Kaine said he also wants to hold a closed briefing with administration officials to get an understanding of their strategy for Syria.
“We’re just negotiating the last couple things,” Flake said. “I think there is growing support for it.”
Aside from Kaine, several other senators also cited the expanded U.S. mission in Syria, where roughly 2,000 troops are stationed, beyond fighting the Islamic State as a reason that momentum for a new AUMF has picked back up.
“We have so overextended beyond those authorizations that it’s well past time for us to take it up again,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Foreign Relations Committee Democrat.
Another Democrat on the panel, Sen. Ben Cardin, said he’s now “willing to look at a compromise language” on a new AUMF to bring more members on board because it is becoming more “urgent” that Congress pass one.
“I think it is challenging, but there are active discussions,” Cardin said.
Even some Republicans supportive of President Trump dismissed the administration’s argument that it already has the necessary authority to continue engaging in Syria and Iraq, and said a new AUMF is needed.
“Every single president has said that since George Washington,” GOP Sen. James Risch, another Foreign Relations member, said with a laugh. “There’s always an argument over the constitutional restraints on the second branch.”
Several members of the House also attempted to shine a light back on the issue this week. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee and Republican Rep. Justin Amash held an ad-hoc hearing Tuesday on the need for a congressional debate over a new AUMF. Lee successfully added an amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF to a defense appropriations bill last summer, only to see it stripped by GOP leadership before reaching the House floor.
Meanwhile, a separate group of senators is challenging the president’s authority in Yemen. Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy and GOP Sen. Mike Lee introduced a resolution Wednesday to invoke the War Powers Resolution and end U.S. military involvement in the three-year Yemen civil war. The Obama administration initially used the 2001 AUMF as justification for intervening in the conflict.
There likely won’t be much action on this measure. But Corker said he hopes his committee will take up Kaine and Flake’s broader AUMF legislation soon.
“We’ve got a couple little hurdles, one little thing in the bill itself we’re trying to resolve, and again, it can be resolved,” Corker said. “I think we’re getting pretty close.”