(CNSNews.com) – With Republicans divided on the issue, the Senate voted on Thursday to advance legislation to repeal Iraq war authorizations put in place in 1991 and 2002, in what would be the first action of its kind by Congress in more than half a century.
The procedural vote passed 68-27, with all 27 “no” votes coming from Republicans. Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats voting in favor, and three Republicans and two Democrats did not vote. (Voting record here.)
The vote tees up a debate, and likely amendments, before a final vote, which the lead sponsors hope could take place next week.
Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, which began five months after Congress passed the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The 1991 AUMF authorized the campaign to eject Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.
Supporters of repeal assert that Iraq is today an ally, hosting U.S. troops who are advising and training local forces to safeguard their country against threats, including a resurgence of ISIS.
But it is Iraq’s neighbor, Iran, that is expected to feature prominently in the debate over repealing the AUMFs; opponents of repeal argue that it sends a signal of lack of resolve to Iran and its terrorist proxies in Iraq.
Speaking on the Senate floor before Thursday’s vote, supporters of repeal said that repealing the authorizations will have no impact on the U.S. ability to respond to Iranian aggression.
Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said President Biden had “responded to Iranian-led and Iranian-backed attacks repeatedly,” without relying on the 2002 AUMF.
“I know well the threat that Iran poses to us and to our allies in the region,” continued Menendez, who is among the most hawkish Democrats on Iran.
“We cannot be naive about their intentions, and we need to have the political will to respond how and when we deem necessary. But repeal will have no impact on our ability to defend U.S. interests against Iran – none whatsoever.”
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who is leading the bipartisan repeal effort with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), took a similar line.
“I share the views of so many of my colleagues on the need to counter Iran, I really do,” he said. “But reimagining a more than 20-year-old authorization that was passed to combat a totally different enemy, is not the way to do it.”
Young said the existence of the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs has not changed the fact that Iraq has faced pressure from Iran over the past two decades.
“Going forward, as Iraq continues to face Iranian coercion and violence,” he said, “we must increase our resolve to stand with them as partners, not as our enemy. And repealing these authorizations will help us do just that.”
Speaking to reporters outside the Capitol, Kaine said that Iran uses the continued existence of the AUMFs for propaganda purposes, telling the Iraqis that if the Americans were their friends, “why would they have two war authorizations against you?”
“Dropping these war authorizations has a way of sending a very powerful signal that the United States and Iraq working together will be a voice for stability in the region,” he said.
If the Senate passes the legislation, it will go to the GOP-controlled House. In June 2021, the then Democrat-led House passed a measure to scrap the 2002 AUMF in a 268-161 vote, with almost a quarter of Republicans voting in favor.
The White House on Thursday signaled Biden’s support for the repeal, saying in a statement of policy that it “would have no impact on current U.S. military operations.”
It added that Biden was committed to working with Congress to ensure that “outdated” AUMFs “are replaced with a narrow and specific framework more appropriate to protecting Americans from modern terrorist threats.”
By contrast, the Trump White House in January 2020 opposed a House measure to repeal the 2002 AUMF.
“Iran and Iran-sponsored proxies continue to plan and execute attacks against United States forces in Iraq,” it said. The AUMF “provides critical authorities for the United States to defend itself and its partner forces” in Iraq.
Weeks earlier, President Trump had ordered the airstrike that killed IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, and the White House cited the 2002 AUMF in part as legal justification.
“The president exercised America’s clear and inherent right of self-defense to counter this threat,” then-National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told reporters on January 3.
“It was a fully authorized action under the 2002 AUMF and was consistent with his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to defend our nation and our forces against attacks like those that Soleimani has directed in the past and was plotting now.”
Earlier, the Obama-Biden administration also justified the use of the 2022 AUMF “for the related dual purposes of helping to establish a stable, democratic Iraq and of addressing terrorist threats emanating from Iraq.”
“After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, the United States continued to take military action in Iraq under the 2002 AUMF to further these purposes, including action against AQI (now known as ISIL),” the Obama administration said in a 2016 legal and policy framework document.
“Then, as now, that organization posed a terrorist threat to the United States and its partners and undermined stability and democracy in Iraq,” it said.
The current repeal effort will not affect the 2001 AUMF, passed after al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Administrations since then have used it to justify military operations against terrorists in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya.
Attempts to repeal the 2001 AUMF, led for years in the House by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), have not progressed. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week considered the Kaine-Young bill, Sen. Rand Paul proposed repealing the 2001 AUMF too, but cast the lone vote in favor.
The last time Congress repealed a military authorization was in January 1971, when a measure to repeal the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution – which became the legal basis for prosecution of the Vietnam War – was attached to foreign military sales legislation signed into law by President Nixon.
Amid Congressional Push to Scrap AUMF, Biden Orders Another Strike Against Iran-Backed Militias (Jun. 28, 2021)
McCaul: Vote to Repeal AUMF a Bid to Undo One of Trump’s ‘Boldest Counterterrorism Successes’ (Jun. 18, 2021)