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April 3, 2023

Debating the President’s War Powers

Lawmakers from both parties seem more willing than ever to repeal the act giving presidents the authorization to use military force.

Last Wednesday, some 20 years after our nation launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Senate repealed the presidential authority making that war possible.

Ever since the passage of the first authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, back in 1991 ahead of the Gulf War, this hugely consequential presidential power has been a source of consternation among constitutional conservatives. As Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris writes:

Despite the Constitution placing war-making powers in the hands of the people’s representatives, Congress has run away from even the most cursory discussion on when to introduce or pull out troops from conflict zones. The political fallout from the 2002 Iraq War vote reinforced the notion that it’s more convenient to stay on the sidelines and critique the president instead of getting your hands dirty.

Indeed, had more lawmakers chosen to ask some tough questions back in 2003 instead of nodding along and deferring to then-President George W. Bush and those in his administration who were dead set on taking us to war in Iraq, history might’ve turned out differently. Instead, as our Nate Jackson noted recently: “4,586 American service members paid the ultimate price, as did roughly another 3,500 contractors and civilians. Another 32,455 military personnel were wounded, some losing limbs or sustaining other lifelong serious injuries. That’s to say nothing of PTSD, broken families, and other ramifications.”

Nor can the Iraqi civilian death toll — which is estimated to be somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000, many of them Iraqi Christians — be ignored. That Iraqi insurgents are responsible for the vast majority of those deaths is of little consequence to the Iraqi people.

The Senate bill, which received bipartisan support, now heads to the House of Representatives, where its fate is far less certain.

“Our terrorist enemies aren’t sunsetting their war against us,” warned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. “And when we deploy our service members in harm’s way, we need to supply them with all the support and legal authorities that we can.”

The McConnell caucus, which in this case represents approximately 30 Senate Republicans, voted against the repeal. McConnell, though, didn’t vote, as he’s still at home recovering from a concussion he sustained after a trip-and-fall at a DC hotel a few weeks back.

McConnell continued: “While the Senate’s been engaged in this abstract, theoretical debate about rolling back American power, Iran has continued its deadly attacks on us. … After a small initial response from the Biden Administration, Iran launched yet more attacks over the weekend, aimed at killing even more Americans. … These threats are not just a regional matter. An Administration that cannot even deter Iran from openly attacking U.S. servicemembers is not going to be able to deter the People’s Republic of China.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he favors repealing the AUMF, as long as the more generally anti-terrorist 2001 version of the authorization remains. “It’ll have to go through committee,” he said. “I think it has a good chance of one getting through the committee and getting to the floor.”

To be clear, McCarthy isn’t saying that our war against Islamic terrorists is over. On the contrary. He continues: “I support keeping the [2001] worldwide [AUMF] so there’s action that can be taken if there’s a terrorist [attack] anywhere in the world. But Iraq and 20 years into it, I don’t have a problem repealing.”

McCarthy, though, was less than convinced about the bill’s chances of passing in the House. As he said last week, “Just because a bill passes in the Senate, doesn’t mean it comes directly to the floor.”

McCarthy said the bill would have to work its way through the House Armed Services Committee before proceeding to a vote before the full House.

Ohio freshman Senator J.D. Vance, who was among the GOP insurgents who oppose blanket intervention abroad, said that despite most GOP senators’ support for the AUMF, the resistance to it is encouraging.

As he told the Washington Examiner: “The question is, what would the vote have been 10 years ago, and what is it today?”

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