WASHINGTON ― House Democrats passed a nearly $1 trillion appropriations bill on Wednesday, complete with funding for the military, health programs and the Energy Department. But 11 lines in the 667-page bill could literally be the difference between war and peace, life and death: a repeal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.
Three weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers overwhelmingly ― 420-1 in the House, 98-0 in the Senate ― approved the 2001 AUMF. The text of the resolution is incredibly broad. Congress gave the president the authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” to go after the “nations, organizations, or persons” who were involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But there’s more.
The resolution also gave the president the authority to go after anyone who “harbored” those people, “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”
Not many lawmakers anticipated that, 18 years later, the United States would still be using the 2001 AUMF to justify military action all over the globe. Three different presidents have used the AUMF for more than three dozen different military engagements in 14 different countries.
And now, with President Donald Trump and his administration strongly signaling they would use the 2001 AUMF to justify a new war with Iran, the newish Democratic majority controlling the House is taking its most serious steps to repeal the war authority.
Included in the base text of the appropriations bill is a provision that would repeal the 2001 AUMF eight months after the legislation is enacted. It is a significant development in Congress trying to restrain Trump and many of his most hawkish advisers’ thirst for war. And it’s the first time the House has passed a repeal of the 2001 AUMF.
But this bill is almost certainly not the bill that will make it to Trump’s desk. This is the first serve in an appropriations pingpong match between the Democratic House and the Republican Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ― much less Trump ― is unlikely to accept such a repeal, and there’s serious doubt among Democrats that their leadership would risk a shutdown over Senate Republicans refusing to repeal the 2001 war authority.
“We are not the party of shutdowns,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told HuffPost this week. “That is not our position.”
If Democrats aren’t willing to risk a shutdown over repealing this 2001 military authorization, however, then they’re almost already giving up the game. They may have found a gambit that could potentially limit the president’s ability to go to war with Iran, but they face stiff opposition to a full-scale AUMF repeal not just from McConnell and Trump but also national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And even if they do plan to give up on repealing the 2001 war authority, they could still face stiff opposition in pursuing a middle-of-the-road approach.
A Generational Divide On War?
Much has been made of the generational divide among House Democrats. The top three leaders are in their late 70s and have collectively been in Congress for 94 years, while many of the newest Democratic members are three generations younger and still setting up district offices.
That means some of the newest members of Congress grew up with the Iraq War in the background of their high school and college years. Many of them opposed the invasion and saw politicians ― many of whom are now colleagues ― send their friends off to war. Despite the situation, Democrats swear there is no division.
“I think Democrats are pretty united,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told HuffPost last week.
Remember the 420-1 vote in the House to approve the 2001 AUMF? Lee was the one member who voted no.
She has led the fight from the very beginning to repeal the authorization, and Lee genuinely believes Democrats of all ages and all congressional tenures are with her. “We have to remember,” Lee said, “I believe it’s only 20% of Congress serving today served in 2001.”
Over the course of more than two dozen interviews with Democratic lawmakers of varying tenures, a generational divide on repealing the 2001 war authority never emerged.
“Very few are on a different page,” said Budget Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who is 71 and has been in Congress for the last 12 years.
“There’s possibly some different points of view, but I’ve not seen it on generational grounds,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who’s been in Congress since 1995.
“I don’t think there’s any divide on that situation at all,” freshman Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), 48, said.
Some freshman members did say they felt there was a new push within their class to repeal the 2001 AUMF, citing how many of them came of age during the early 2000s.
Haley Stevens of Michigan, recalled being in college at American University, walking into the student center and seeing on TV that the United States was going to war.
“When I look back ― I’m no longer a college kid now; I’m a member of Congress,” Stevens said. “But I remember it very viscerally, and it’s something to remember about our responsibility now in Congress ... around the decisions that we make, around the bills that we’re trying to pass.”
And freshman Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) recounted watching President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address after 9/11 ― when he was a freshman at Baylor University ― and hearing Bush mention for the first time “weapons of mass destruction.”
“Iraq is certainly in the back our minds since they are looking like they’re trying to rely on the same authorization of use of military force,” he said.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), who worked on President Barack Obama’s national security team, said the Iraq War played a critical role in shaping his life and was a “big reason” why he entered the foreign policy field. But he also said he was aware that there were risks in drawing parallels too closely between different conflicts ― which is another reason why members feel a new AUMF is warranted.
“I want to draw from my personal experiences, but not impose my memories upon current circumstances. They’re always going to be different,” he said. “And we can always just be thinking about this war as fighting the last war.”
But it’s not just freshmen who seem to be thinking about the mistakes of Iraq.
As Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who’s been in Congress since 2013, told HuffPost: “I don’t think anybody wants to blunder into or be manipulated into a war and have no choices.”
That is why, as the Trump administration provides classified briefings on Iran’s aggression and its nuclear program, there’s been strong pushback from members ― both Democratic and Republican.
“I don’t think anybody wants to blunder into or be manipulated into a war and have no choices.”
Some members who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the classified briefings said conversations were often combative, and it was concerning how strong some officials were “playing to the drumbeat of war.”
Because of the threat of war with Iran, which would likely be an even more serious and bloody engagement than the war with Iraq that killed more than 4,000 Americans and wounded another 32,000, members say it’s more incumbent upon them than ever to repeal the 2001 AUMF.
The Iran Gambit
With potential strikes against Iran looming, Democrats and some Republicans have been trying not only to repeal the 2001 AUMF but also specifically block action against Iran.
During a recent markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, members debated an amendment that would clarify that the 2001 AUMF could not be used to justify “kinetic” military action in Iran.
“‘Kinetic action’ is things that go boom,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) told HuffPost, adding that it meant bombs, missiles, guns and other lethal force weapons.
There was an effort to include the amendment in the bill that came out of the Armed Services Committee, but the authors ― Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Anthony Brown (D-Md.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Garamendi ― decided to withdraw it after Democrats and Republicans expressed concern about the language.
Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) assured the members they would get a floor vote on a similar amendment when the annual defense bill comes to the floor in mid-July, and Rules Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) confirmed to HuffPost on Tuesday that he plans to make such an amendment in order for debate.
While the members were disappointed they couldn’t get the amendment adopted during the markup, there are benefits to a floor vote. It will put every member on the record about the president needing to come to Congress for a new authorization if he wants to strike Iran.
“The thing that was important and should not be missed in that debate was that Republicans wanted a restriction on the use of force,” noted Garamendi, who’s been one of the Democrats most forcefully pushing to repeal the 2001 AUMF for years, along with Lee and McGovern.
Garamendi even said he was willing to shut down the government over the fight to repeal the 2001 AUMF.
But there are also drawbacks to such an amendment.
Democrats who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed concern that leadership would use the language specifically blocking war with Iran to justify Democrats caving on the 2001 authority repeal.
Essentially, the House could pass the NDAA with a provision prohibiting the use of the 2001 AUMF to go to war with Iran, and then Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could make the case that Democrats had already restrained the Trump administration’s biggest target for war, and therefore could agree to pass the final spending deal with the Senate even if it didn’t include the AUMF repeal.
Using the 2001 AUMF to justify war with Iran is a legally tenuous case, but it’s one for which the Trump administration has already been laying the groundwork. If Democrats could effectively block the possibility of an unauthorized war with Iran, that would be a significant win.
It would not, however, preclude Trump’s ability to wage dozens of other military actions, or stop him from a first strike under the War Powers Resolution if he deemed it a “national emergency” ― a term he’s already shown a willingness to define loosely.
Democrats may be willing to gamble that, by taking away the administration’s top target for war, they could theoretically run out the clock on his presidency without additional military conflict. But it’s a question each member has to ask themselves.
“You have so well described the great Washington parlor game,” one Democratic member said after we laid out this theory. “This is what everybody loves to do, and that is to hypothesize over all of the players.”
This member thought the theory was wrong, that Pelosi was genuinely aiming to repeal the 2001 AUMF and that Democrats would fight for it, even if it meant risking a shutdown.
But either way, there is something holding up this repeal.
McConnell is always a barrier for Democrats. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and other Senate Democrats have tried for years to repeal the 2001 war authority, and they’ve run up against McConnell every time.
The Kentucky Republican signaled earlier this year that, far from restricting the president’s ability to go to war with Iran, he’s concerned America is not doing enough to curb the Islamic republic. One of the few rebukes McConnell has issued Trump was when the president abruptly pulled out of Syria at the end of last year. McConnell introduced a resolution urging caution and citing America’s interest in countering Iran.
Trump himself doesn’t seem very warm to the idea of restricting his war abilities. He rattled his own saber on Twitter in May when he wrote, “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” And his allies in Congress, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), have shown an outright eagerness to take on the country.
“Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike,” Cotton said on “Face the Nation” last weekend, after explosions damaged two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. “The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests.”
“Part of the lesson from Iraq is that when you go looking for a specific answer, you will find it. The nature of intelligence is that you will sometimes have conflicting reports.”
Some Democratic members are concerned that the Trump administration is either deliberately pushing the country into a war with Iran ― similar to what happened with Iraq ― or that the president and his team are so mismanaging and escalating the situation that they will stumble into a conflict they can’t control.
Moulton, who is running for president and is one of the only members of Congress who has been in combat, said some of the characters involved are the same as with Iraq: John Bolton, a draft-dodging president and the Cheney family.
“Dick Cheney was pushing us towards war with Iraq,” Moulton said. “Liz Cheney, in the House, is pushing us towards war.” (Rep. Liz Cheney is the daughter of the former vice president and is the No. 3 Republican in the GOP conference.)
Moulton saw similarities not only with Iraq but also an earlier war, saying that the Trump administration looked as if it wanted to justify action with a “Gulf of Tonkin-type incident,” referring to the hyped-up incident between a U.S. destroyer and some North Vietnamese boats that led to the Vietnam War.
Freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who was once a CIA officer, mentioned how lawmakers should have learned the lesson of faulty intelligence by now. “Part of the lesson from Iraq is that when you go looking for a specific answer, you will find it,” Spanberger said. “The nature of intelligence is that you will sometimes have conflicting reports.”
But it’s more than Republicans advocating for war, or at least not wanting to rein in their president.
Congress has failed for years to repeal this authority. Even though Democrats had unified control of the House, Senate and White House from 2009 to 2011, repealing the 2001 AUMF was not a priority. Even later into Obama’s presidency, after his administration had repeatedly used the 2001 AUMF to justify new military engagements, he was only willing to repeal a 2002 AUMF specifically for Iraq. He wanted to leave his options open on the broader 2001 authority.
“If you give a president the power,” Lee said, “whether it’s a Democrat or Republican, if Congress has abdicated our responsibility to the executive, they’ll use it.”
When HuffPost repeatedly pressed Lee as to why Democrats hadn’t already repealed the 2001 AUMF in their first six months of power, Lee kept saying we’d have to ask other members.
“I guess there’s some resistance somewhere. Some resistance somewhere, we don’t know where, but I think that sooner or later, this is going to break through,” she said.
Khanna also indicated he thought Democrats were less unified on repealing the AUMF than many other members let on.
“There’s still work to be done to convince folks that we need a foreign policy of restraint and that the interventionism of the last 20 years has made us less safe and has been a blunder in many places,” he said, though he did say a more restrained foreign policy was “gaining ground” among both parties.
“Whether it’s become the prevailing majority, that remains to be seen,” he said.
Either way, Democrats have the ability to at least show voters they’re serious about repealing this authority.
The appropriations package that included the AUMF repeal passed Wednesday 226-203, with every Republican opposed to the bill. In the House at least, Republicans can’t stop Democrats from demonstrating their values on war. And Republicans acknowledge that.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), perhaps the most hawkish member of Congress ― so hawkish that he doesn’t believe the president even needs an AUMF for military action ― told HuffPost that the democratic process plays a part in decisions about war.
“Elections have consequences,” King said. “We lost the election, is the reality.”