20 Years Later, Senate Votes to Repeal Iraq War Authorizations

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U.S. Marines escort captured enemy prisoner in Iraq.
U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment escort captured enemy prisoners of war to a holding area in the desert of Iraq on March 21, 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brian L. Wickliffe)

The Senate for the first time has voted to repeal the congressional authorizations for both Iraq Wars, delivering a message a week after the 20th anniversary of the 2003 invasion. The repeal will be sent to the House, where it awaits an uncertain fate.

The upper chamber on Wednesday voted 66-30 to end the 2002 authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF. The bill, which was sponsored by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., would also repeal the 1991 AUMF that authorized the Gulf War.

"The 4,500 [U.S. troops] who died, the 3,100 who were wounded, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians -- what we have to contemplate is the reality that we rushed into a war," Kaine, who was not in Congress in 2002, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "This body rushed into a war."

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About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq training and advising Iraqi forces, the remnants of a surge in forces that coincided with the rise of ISIS and its temporary hold of large chunks of Iraqi territory. Repealing the Iraq-related AUMFs is not expected to affect their operations since a different AUMF, tied to 9/11, is the main legal authority for the mission.

President Joe Biden has promised to sign the repeal if it reaches his desk, but it's unclear whether the House will vote on it amid a GOP divide on the issue.

Repeals of the 2002 and 1991 AUMFs passed the House several times in recent years when Democrats controlled the chamber, usually as amendments to the annual defense policy or spending bills. But prior to this year, the repeal efforts repeatedly stalled in the Senate, despite Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., promising two years ago to bring a repeal measure to the floor.

    When the House took a stand-alone vote to repeal the 2002 AUMF in 2021, 49 Republicans backed the move. None of those Republicans belongs to the leadership team that now controls which bills are brought to the floor, but GOP supporters of repeal include members of the far-right Freedom Caucus that has forced concessions from leadership on several issues this year.

    Since the previous House votes, Republican leadership appears to have softened its opposition. Earlier this month, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters, "I don't have a problem repealing that." But McCarthy added that the repeal would first have to go through the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rather than coming straight to the floor -- something that could stall, or even kill, the repeal effort.

    Instead of simply repealing the AUMFs, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, has said he wants to replace them with one that specifically targets Iran-backed militias in Iraq. The militias have attacked U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, including a drone strike last week that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded five U.S. troops.

    But McCaul's idea lacks support to get through the Senate. A similar proposal that was offered by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as an amendment to the AUMF repeal was defeated in a 36-60 vote last week.

    Still, senators expressed hope that the AUMF repeal will reach the finish line. In the Senate, 18 Republicans voted with Democrats in support of the repeal.

    "There is a very good chance that both chambers can pass these AUMF repeals before the end of this year, so this bill can be signed into law," Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "This is not just going to be a one house action."

    Supporters of repealing the Iraq AUMFs say it is an important step to Congress reclaiming the power to declare war granted to the legislative branch in the Constitution. They also fear a future president could abuse the authorities, or use them for missions well beyond what was envisioned when they were devised, if they are left on the books. Former President Donald Trump cited the 2002 AUMF when he ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was in Iraq at the time.

    Veterans of the Iraq War have also urged Congress to repeal the authorizations.

    "Veterans understand the human cost of war, and we know that the burden of conflict falls heavily on our service members and their families," American Legion National Security Director Mario Marquez, who served four combat tours in Iraq, said at a news conference with Kaine and Young this month. "Millions of servicemen and women answered a call to serve in Iraq willingly and without question, and we did so without ever knowing a definitive end to our service. However, our force is not built to remain in a perpetual state of war."

    Despite momentum to repeal the Iraq War authorization, the AUMF that underwrites the global war on terrorism that was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shows no signs of going away. When the Senate voted on repealing the 2001 AUMF during amendment debate on the Iraq War repeal, the amendment was soundly defeated.

    While presidents in both parties have typically resisted congressional efforts to pull back their war powers, the Biden administration has said it supports repealing the 2002 and 1991 AUMFs since they are not currently the main legal justification for any military operations. The 2001 AUMF is the legal underpinning for the U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and other locations where the United States is fighting terrorists. The administration also maintains the president has the power under Article II of the Constitution to take actions to protect those troops or the U.S. homeland.

    "Repeal of these authorizations would have no impact on current U.S. military operations and would support this administration's commitment to a strong and comprehensive relationship with our Iraqi partners," the White House said in a statement of administration policy earlier this month. "That partnership, which includes cooperation with the Iraqi Security Forces, continues at the invitation of the Government of Iraq in an advise, assist, and enable role."

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

    Related: What Is an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)?

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