The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Tuesday to grapple with a measure to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provided the legal justification for the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“President Biden is committed to engaging with Congress on questions of war and peace, and to being transparent about when, where, why, and how the United States uses military force,” Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the committee. “I want to state clearly that the Biden-Harris administration believes the 2002 authorization for the use of military force against Iraq has outlived its usefulness and should be repealed.”
The repeal of the AUMFs would be the first rollback of presidential war powers since 9/11. The House passed separate bills in June to repeal the authorizations.
President Biden has previously registered his support for appealing the authorizations, arguing that they are outdated.
The administration has also strayed from previous administrations’ tendency to lean on the 2002 AUMF for engagements in the region, citing Article II of the Constitution for airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia fighters in Iraq and Syria in February and June.
Then-President Obama cited the authorization in 2014 as legal authority to send troops back in the theater to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In 2020, President Trump cited the 2002 authorization as the legal basis for carrying out the drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani while he was in Iraq.
Committee members remain divided on the way forward for the authorizations.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said it is irresponsible to leave the outdated authorizations on the books, to potentially be used for purposes for which they were not intended.
“[T]hese authorizations simply do not reflect reality, which is that any U.S. troops currently in Iraq are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” he said. “Indeed, the president just welcomed Prime Minister Khadimi to the White House for a strategic dialogue. It simply makes no sense to keep an authorization against Iraq.”
Although lawmakers in both parties largely agree that the authorizations are outdated, some Republicans argue that the repeal could send the wrong message amid continued Iranian aggression in the region.
“While the administration cited Article II authorities as the legal basis for recent strikes, I’m concerned with the practical impacts of repealing the 2002 AUMF,” said ranking Republican on the committee James E. Risch of Idaho. “The 2002 AUMF provides the only statutory authority to strike Iran-backed militias in Iraq.”
He added, “The Biden administration’s policy of less than robust responses to attacks against U.S. interests have clearly failed to restore deterrence. Having said that, it’s all the more important that we underscore the message that we are trying to send.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, argued that there is little upside to repealing the AUMF and that the move could be misconstrued. He asked Ms. Sherman if she thought the administration would misuse the war authorizations if they remained on the books; she replied it would not.
“Why do it now?” he said. “They’re about to have elections in Iraq. Potentially, this could be misconstrued as somehow America’s pulling away. It seems like the risk is much greater than the benefit.”
Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, agreed that the authorizations are outdated, but said the repeal without a replacement authorization would undermine U.S. leverage in the region.
“I believe updated congressional authorities are needed precisely because terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism are continuing to escalate attacks on Americans in the Middle East,” he said. “The executive branch will only be in a stronger position if Congress authorizes it to defend Americans in harm’s way.”
During the hearing, Mr. Hagerty introduced a measure that would repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations while authorizing the president to defend against, and respond to, attacks by “terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism who are operating in Iraq.”
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