The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

House votes to repeal military authorizations dating to Gulf War, Cold War

U.S. military personnel march across Arlington Memorial Bridge during a victory parade on June 8, 1991. (Doug Mills/AP)

The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to repeal two decades-old measures authorizing American military action in the Middle East, in a rare bipartisan gesture of what one senior Democrat called “good legislative housekeeping.”

Congress needs “to take seriously its responsibility over war and peace” and “recall and repeal authorities when their usefulness has passed, ” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during a floor debate this week.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), agreed. “This is an example of how we can work together to clean up these old AUMFs,” he said, using the shorthand for authorization for use of military force. McCaul said there was “no reason” to leave such fully defunct authorizations “on the books.”

The first authorization was passed in 1957 to help the president confront communism in the Middle East. The second was passed in 1991 to pave the way for the Persian Gulf War. Neither has been referenced as a justification for a military campaign in decades.

The vote was 366 to 46, with only Republicans opposed. Yet the enthusiasm for repealing two “relic” authorizations, as lawmakers referred to them, is expected to do little to bridge the deep divide that remains between Democrats and most of the GOP over whether to repeal more-recent military authorizations.

House votes to repeal 2002 authorization for military force with strong bipartisan support and a White House endorsement

Those particularly at issue are the 2001 measure that greenlighted the U.S. government’s campaign in Afghanistan to pursue the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2002 measure that enabled the Iraq War. Democrats and some Republicans have argued that those measures have been contorted beyond recognition by successive presidents to justify operations against new threats that Congress never envisioned or approved.

Even as he cheered the repeal of the 1957 and 1991 measures, McCaul warned that discussions about removing the more recent authorizations are “very different.”

The House passed a repeal of the 2002 measure this month, with the support of 49 Republicans — far more than backed an attempt to do the same just last year. The Biden administration also backs the repeal of that authorization, which has not been used as the sole justification for a military campaign for more than a decade.

But most Republicans remain strongly opposed to the repeal, warning that it could compromise the United States’ ability to respond to future terrorist threats and instability in the Middle East. In the Senate, efforts to advance parallel legislation ran aground this month when Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee objected, demanding briefings from the country’s top diplomats, military leaders and intelligence officials before voting on the repeal.

The process of repealing the 2001 authorization promises to be more complicated. Critics and supporters of that authorization agree it must be updated or replaced so as not to compromise ongoing operations against terrorist groups.