House Votes Down Proposal To End 2001 War Authorization

There's no end in sight for a war authorization that's been used for nearly 15 years.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is the sponsor of an amendment that would have revoked the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force within 90 days of the president signing the defense spending bill.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is the sponsor of an amendment that would have revoked the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force within 90 days of the president signing the defense spending bill.
Enrique de la Osa / Reuters

There will be no end to the president's endless war authority.

In a 138-285 vote, the House rejected an amendment Wednesday night that would have repealed the sprawling 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force passed in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The amendment would have revoked the 2001 AUMF within 90 days of the president signing the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed Wednesday night, 277-147.

As amendment sponsor Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) noted on Wednesday, the Congressional Research Service says the broad war authorization has been used to justify military action in 14 countries a total of 37 times -- 18 from President George W. Bush, and 19 from President Barack Obama.

"And this report only looks at unclassified incidents," Lee said. "How many other times has it been used without the knowledge of Congress or the American people?"

Lee, who was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF in 2001, said she opposed the authorization "because I believed it opened the door for any president to wage endless war without a congressional debate or a vote."

"And I believe, quite frankly," Lee continued, "that history has borne that out."

Lee said the authorization was not only used to fight large-scale wars, but that it's been used "much closer to home to allow warrantless surveillance and wiretaps, indefinite detention practices at [Guantanamo Bay] and targeted killing by drones."

The 2001 war authorization is currently being used as a legal justification for the ongoing war against the Islamic State, and there's a growing coalition of lawmakers who think the president needs a new war authorization for military operations against ISIS.

While Lee said lawmakers are splintered on what a new AUMF should look like, she asserted that many agree that an overly broad and nearly 15-year-old AUMF represents "a major and very concerning deterioration of congressional oversight."

But there's still a large bloc of members who aren't ready to yank the 2001 authorization.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) noted that the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all say they have full legal authority to combat ISIS.

"And Congress has supported that view by appropriating funds," Royce said.

Royce noted that a new AUMF wouldn't give the president any more authority to fight ISIS than he currently has. "It could give him less," Royce said. "The president asked for less in his proposal."

That's true, more or less.

Obama did submit a new AUMF to Congress in February 2015 that would have placed new restrictions on the president, authorizing a war against ISIS for three years and not authorizing "enduring offensive ground combat operations." That new AUMF, however, would not have repealed the 2001 authorization, meaning the president would retain all current authorities anyway. (The president's proposed AUMF would have repealed a 2002 authorization, and Obama said he was willing to work with Congress to sunset the 2001 authorization as well.)

But that debate went nowhere.

A small coalition of Republicans and Democrats have been pressuring Speaker Paul Ryan to debate a new war authorization. And Ryan has sounded somewhat open to the idea. But, thus far, a vote on the Lee amendment Wednesday night is the closest Congress has come to debating a new AUMF.

The Rules Committee did not allow consideration of a number of amendments to the defense authorization that would have acted as a new AUMF. Instead, they made the Lee amendment in order, knowing that it was destined to fail. (A similar amendment -- again from Lee -- was rejected last year during NDAA consideration.)

The vote on that amendment was 157-270.

While it may seem like opposition to the 2001 AUMF is softening, Lee's amendment last year was a bit more forgiving on the timeline for revoking the authorization. Last year, members were voting in June to halt funding in December for activities granted by the 2001 AUMF. This year, they were simply voting to repeal the authorization within 90 days of enactment.

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