The House voted Thursday to repeal a 19-year-old military authorization Congress passed to give legal backing to the Iraq War with the support of Democrats and Republicans and the endorsement of the White House — an unprecedented coalition to end post-9/11 authorities to engage in hostilities that critics argue are outdated.
The 268-to-161 vote reflects growing bipartisan support for the repeal effort, and tees up the legislation for the Senate, where Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) this week declared his support for the measure and his intention to bring it to the floor for a vote sometime this year.
“Today’s historic vote is a turning point,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said on the floor just before the vote. “I look forward to Congress no longer taking a back seat on some of the most consequential decisions our nation can make.”
Congress, however, is still largely divided along party lines about whether the move to repeal such authorizations will actually allow lawmakers to reclaim their power to permit the use of military force — a decision that some think has been usurped by successive presidents.
Lawmakers have been trying for almost a decade to repeal both the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as well as the 2001 AUMF that Congress passed to greenlight hostilities against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Both the Obama and Trump administrations opposed the repeal measures.
People in both parties argued that the authorizations had been stretched beyond recognition to target terrorist groups that didn’t even exist when the approvals were granted, while different presidents insisted that they needed the latitude to adapt to a changing threat landscape.
When President Biden entered office, he indicated that he was willing to work with lawmakers to wind down authorizations. For the past several months, his administration has been negotiating with leading proponents of repeal to determine the way forward.
The 2002 authorization is generally viewed as the simplest of the AUMFs to phase out. The Iraq War was formally ended years ago, and the military has not cited the permissions granted in 2002 as its sole justification for any operations in more than a decade.
Still, many lawmakers — most of them Republicans — have rejected the idea of winding down the existing AUMFs without having replacements prepared to address “the modern-day threat.”
“We need to replace this with an updated AUMF that reflects the threats in the region, the current threats, which is Iran,” Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on the floor just before the vote.
But Democrats rejected his argument.
“If we think Iran is a threat, maybe we should do an AUMF for Iran . . . this AUMF is for Iraq,” Meeks said. “There’s no need to repeal and replace; they’re outdated, and once they’re outdated, let’s just remove them from the books.”
On Thursday, 49 House Republicans — including both moderates and ultraconservatives — voted alongside all but one Democrat to back the repeal.
“Three presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, have used this permission to drag out conflicts that will get us into new ones,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said on the floor, before voting in favor of the legislation.
Thursday’s vote represents a dramatic expansion of bipartisan support from just last year, when the House voted to repeal the 2002 AUMF in the wake of the U.S. strike that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. In that vote, only 11 Republicans supported the measure sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who also wrote Thursday’s identical legislation.
“The president stated his support for the bill, saying that the 2002 AUMF will not impact current military operations,” Lee said. “But repeal can prevent our country from entering another protracted engagement under this outdated authority.”
Some Republican leaders said that repealing the authorizations will weaken American security and complicate efforts to draw down U.S. forces overseas.
“For years, U.S. forces have been carefully handing more of the primary responsibility for counterterrorism to brave local partners . . . But that’s only worked because our partners have been able to trust that the U.S. military is still authorized to back them up,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Thursday, accusing House Democrats of trying to “rip out one of the key authorities underpinning that trust.”
Republicans have also argued that by repealing without passing a replacement, Congress is effectively ceding its Article I responsibilities under the Constitution to the executive branch and giving the president unlimited Article II powers.
The Constitution gives Congress and the president different but overlapping responsibilities for how to handle the use of military power. While Article I of the Constitution grants Congress alone the power “to declare war,” Article II states that the president is the commander in chief.
In 1973, Congress tried to clarify the reach of each branch’s role with the War Powers Resolution, which acknowledges the president’s right to act unilaterally in cases where the country comes under attack, but otherwise puts a time limit on operations that don’t fall under an existing authorization.
Presidents have argued that the resolution is unconstitutional, but its limitations have also led commanders in chief to justify some operations under existing AUMFs.
Proponents of the current reform effort envision the 2002 AUMF repeal as the first in a series of changes Congress has an opportunity to make in partnership with the Biden administration. Should the 2002 repeal pass, supporters’ next target is replacing the 2001 AUMF with an updated authorization to address terrorist groups that are the focus of current U.S. operations.
But that is a more complicated undertaking, and it is not clear that Biden’s embrace of the 2002 repeal extends to other military authorizations — or that the same robust bipartisan coalition will support further efforts.
Earlier this year, Biden announced he would be pulling all troops out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That has also been floated as a possible repeal date for the 2001 AUMF, which has been used to justify ongoing operations against other groups, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. McConnell argued Thursday that both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs are still needed.
“We’re learning a lesson in real time about withdrawing from Afghanistan without a plan. We shouldn’t make the same mistake here,” he said. “The grave threats posed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups are as real as they’ve ever been. And repealing AUMFs without agreeing on new authorities up front will only lead to more uncertainty about what we’re going to do about them.”