The US Congress on Thursday moved to repeal the nearly two decade-old Iraq war authorisation, marking the opening salvo in a broader bipartisan push on Capitol Hill to rein in the White House’s expansive interpretation of the president’s war power authorities.
The Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill introduced by Democrat Barbara Lee of California to repeal the 2002 Iraq war authorisation 28-18, paving the way for a floor vote in the House of Representatives.
“It was passed to authorise a war against Saddam Hussein almost 20 years ago when I had first arrived in the Congress,” Gregory Meeks, the committee chairman, said before the vote. “Iraq is a security partner of the United States. Saddam Hussein is long gone. No current operations depend on the 2002 [authorisation].”
US troops are currently in Iraq and Syria fighting the remnants of ISIS under a separate 2001 military authorisation that Congress passed after the September 11 attacks.
Ms Lee has also unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the 2001 authorisation that allowed for the war in Afghanistan, the longest-running conflict in US history.
She was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 authorisation, and the White House has since used that legislation as the legal basis for military operations in more than 40 countries across the globe against terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
US troops in Iraq fighting ISIS under the 2001 authorisation have frequently found themselves the target of attacks from Iran-backed Iraqi militias.
The frequent exchange of fire between the pro-Tehran militias and US forces last year prompted former president Donald Trump to strike Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis in Baghdad.
The Trump administration invoked the 2002 authorisation as part of its legal justification for the Suleimani strike, which prompted Iran to retaliate with a barrage of missile attacks on the Ain Al Asad base in Iraq, which caused traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 US soldiers.
More recently, President Joe Biden faced pushback from some of his fellow Democrats following his February strike on two Iran-backed Iraqi militias stationed in Syria days after US troops once again came under fire in Iraq.
The Biden administration justified the Syria strike by invoking the president’s right to defend US troops under Article II of the constitution but has not provided any public evidence indicating that the military action thwarted an imminent attack on American forces.
Democrat Bob Menendez, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, told reporters that he was still “in search of more answers” on the legal rationale for the Syria strike after Biden administration officials briefed senators on the matter on Monday.
“At least I give him credit for being upfront that Article II is what he’s using,” said Mr Menendez. “That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree that the Article II powers are the powers that were necessarily justified to be invoked here.”
The Biden administration has indicated that it is open to signing on to legislation that would repeal decades-old military authorisations that remain on the books – so long as Congress replaces them with updated authorities.
Nonetheless, Mr Menendez indicated that Democrats may push ahead with repealing the 2002 Iraq war authorisation without a replacement.
Conversely, Mr Menendez and other centrist Democrats in the Senate seem wary of repealing the 2001 authorisation without passing new legislation allowing the president to carry out attacks against terrorist organisations.
“That’s going to be the tricky part of that,” said Mr Menendez. “And the more difficult part is to do something that creates a sense that the Congress has exercised its appropriate role to limit the executive branch and at the same time not hamstring where the national defence is truly at stake and to do something that the administration would sign on to. Because ultimately they’d have to sign it.
“So, that’s going to take more work, and we’re going to be working and developing that process both through hearings as well as conversations with the White House.”
Previous efforts in Congress to replace the 2001 authorisation with new legislation ran into a legislative standstill during the Obama administration.
The 2001 authorisation aside, many Republicans are not even willing to repeal the 2002 Iraq war authorisation without replacing it.
“Doing this the right way, I think, involves consulting with the Department of State, the Department of Defence, the White House, the intelligence community, the government of Iraq and our coalition partners and allies to fully understand the impact of just an outright stand-alone repeal,” Mike McMcCaul, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said before the vote.
Although the House committee vote to repeal the Iraq war authorisation fell largely along party lines, Republicans Ken Buck of Colorado and Peter Meijer of Michigan joined Democrats in advancing the measure. The repeal legislation’s 103 co-sponsors also include seven Republicans.
Republicans in the House have more broadly lined up behind efforts to reform the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution in a bid to allow Congress to better limit the president’s authority to use military force absent congressional authorisation.
Although Congress passed the 1973 War Powers Resolution to rein in the president’s war-making authorities, presidents from both parties have frequently launched offensive military actions across the globe without congressional authorisation in places such as Syria and Libya.
Congress showed a renewed interest in using the War Powers Resolution to curtail military action in the Middle East during the Trump administration with fast-tracked procedures laid out in the law to pass two separate bills intended to prevent Mr Trump from launching offensive military action against Iran and to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
But Mr Trump vetoed both bills, and Congress could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to override the presidential veto – illustrating the stark political limits of the War Powers Resolution.
Republicans appeared largely supportive of reforming the War Powers Resolution during two separate hearings on Tuesday, with legal scholars brought in by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters for debate and votes on the House floor.
“We have an unusual opening in that we have an administration that actually wants to work with us rather than against Congress as an institution, in doing this and doing it the right way,” Tom Cole, the top Republican on the typically hyper-partisan Rules Committee, said at the hearing.
“And shame on us if we miss the opportunity to reclaim our authority when we actually have an administration that wants us to get that done.”
In the meantime, Thursday's Foreign Affairs Committee vote paves the way for a full House vote on repealing the 2002 Iraq war authorisation as well as two other pieces of Middle East-related legislation that the committee advanced by voice vote.
The committee advanced a bill from Democrat Tom Malinowski of New Jersey to sanction any “foreign person” listed in a recently unclassified intelligence report regarding the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi foreign ministry has called the report's findings "incorrect" and "unacceptable".
The other Middle East bill, introduced by Democrat Gerry Connolly of Virginia, promotes the protection of Saudi dissidents residing in the United States.