Congress is poised to begin unwinding two decades of virtually unchecked White House war powers and to overhaul authorities that critics say have been abused by presidents of both parties.
Two key House committees on Tuesday held hearings to begin mapping out the next steps in replacing two Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) laws passed nearly 20 years ago.
The measures provided the legal backing for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and the Iraq war in 2003 but have been used in the years since to justify conflicts in Libya, Syria, Somalia, and even a January 2020 airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
With President Biden seemingly open to pulling back the executive branch’s power, lawmakers say the time has come.
“I think we may have finally caught lightning in a bottle,” said Rep. James McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Rules Committee, which held a hearing on the future of the AUMFs on Tuesday. “That really was the missing piece, the political will from the White House.”
Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican and his party’s ranking member on the Rules Committee, said the White House has “opened the door” and it’s up to Congress to “walk through it.”
The House Foreign Affairs Committee also held an AUMF hearing Tuesday, suggesting that momentum is building in the chamber. Lawmakers have said recently that AUMF legislation could be introduced and begin moving through the chamber in the next several weeks.
Mr. Biden earlier this month signaled that he’s open to revising the laws, which have stood unchanged since former President George W. Bush’s first term. There’s movement in the Senate, too, where a bipartisan group of senators led by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia is pushing a bill to repeal the 2002 Iraq war AUMF and a 1991 law that authorized the first Gulf War but still remains on the books.
That legislation, however, would not address the 2001 AUMF, which legal specialists say is the most problematic and has been stretched far beyond the breaking point by Republican and Democratic presidents. For example, the 2001 law has been used as justification for years-long campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and against the al-Shabab terror group in Somalia, neither of which existed in their current form when the bill was passed.
“The United States is at war today with groups in countries that Congress has never determined the nation should be fighting. This is not how these decisions are supposed to work,” Rebecca Ingber, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law, told the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. “We are here today in part because we can no longer answer a simple question: With whom are we at war?”
Legal specialists urged Congress to address each of the AUMFs along with reforms to the much broader Nixon-era War Powers Resolution, which allows presidents to enter into conflict without the direct consent of Congress.
Mr. Biden cited that authority late last month when he authorized airstrikes in Syria against the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah that had targeted American forces in neighboring Iraq.