WASHINGTON — For the first time in years, Democratic and Republican lawmakers intent on repealing the authorization of military force passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are expressing hope that they can finally rein in a resolution that has been stretched like elastic to justify open-ended warfare against Islamist militants around the globe.
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a bipartisan amendment that would repeal the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, which provided Congress’s blessing to use military force only against nations, groups or individuals responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. When it was first passed, the enemies targeted were Al Qaeda and its Taliban host in Afghanistan, but since then, presidents of both parties have invoked the war authority to justify military force in many other places.
The move is the latest in a yearslong debate over whether to curtail the president’s war powers that has heated up in recent months as lawmakers fret over intractable conflicts. It has taken on new urgency as the administration has escalated tensions with Iran.
“You can’t tell me that we can’t debate and pass an authorization or not based on the new realities, the wars that we have been involved in without authorization,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California and the lead sponsor of the measure. Ms. Lee was the only member who voted against approving the war authorization in 2001.
Her measure would repeal the authorization and give Congress an eight-month window to draft new legislation addressing continuing wars. A majority of current lawmakers were not in Congress when the authorization was passed, and they deserve a chance to weigh in, Ms. Lee argued.
Her effort, years in the making, has gained momentum in recent weeks after the administration sent an aircraft carrier, bombers and missile defense systems to the Persian Gulf region to confront Iran. In a closed-door briefing on Tuesday, senators questioned whether the administration would invoke force authorizations approved after Sept. 11 and before the invasion of Iraq to go to war with Iran. In a tense exchange during a hearing last month, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “you do not have the permission of Congress to go to war with Iran.”
“The president says that he doesn’t want war with Iran, and I believe him. The easiest way not to have war with Iran is not to start a war with Iran,” said Representative Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky and one of the sponsors of the Lee amendment. “He is not authorized, nor is any president authorized, to commit an act of war against any other country without a declaration from Congress. That power rests here in Congress and in Congress alone.”
Ms. Lee has been trying for years in a Sisyphean fashion to attach the amendment to the military spending bill. It passed the committee on a voice vote in 2017, only to have Paul D. Ryan, then the speaker, unilaterally strip it from a larger spending bill. The Senate rejected the effort as well.
But now, with Democrats in power, she just might have an opening.
“I don’t expect this amendment to be stripped,” Ms. Lee said at a news conference Wednesday. “I know that as we move the bill forward we have broad-based support to make sure it stays in and to bring this bill to the floor with this amendment intact.”
The measure is likely to face headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, could easily strip the provision from the version of the spending bill the Senate approves. Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, threw cold water on the idea, and argued that the momentum the measure had gained in the House was all about limiting President Trump’s ability to respond to Iran.
“They pretty much want to take him out of that,” Mr. Inhofe said.
In the Senate, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have shown an increased appetite to curtail presidential war powers. Seven Republican senators joined Democrats in March to vote to end American military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen in a rare invocation of the War Powers Act.
“There is a desperate need for a new A.U.M.F.,” Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said on Wednesday, referring to the authorization for the use of military force.
“We’re talking about expanding the U.S. role in conflicts around the world, but you’re relying on an A.U.M.F. that had to do with fighting Al Qaeda,” she said.
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