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Lawmakers want to update Authorization for Use of Military Force law

November 19, 2018

Lawmakers in both parties are agitating to update a 16-year-old law authorizing U.S. military force, a move considered a long-shot that could nevertheless tie President Trump’s hands as Democrats take over the House next year.

A measure to direct the president to remove U.S. forces from involvement in the war in Yemen received 87 co-sponsors in the House last week, but only four of them were Republicans. GOP leadership effectively blocked the resolution on a rare procedural move, essentially daring Democratic leaders to revive the measure in January.

Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat who sponsored the resolution, said he intends to do just that.

“I think we’re going to get the commitment of leadership to allow us to have a vote in January,” he told The Washington Times.

Trump administration officials including Defense Secretary James Mattis have told Congress they don’t want a revision of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the open-ended authorization that originally targeted Afghanistan-based terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and has since been applied by three presidents to counterterrorism operations in 16 other global hot spots.

Mr. Mattis has advised against lawmakers placing time constraints on the use of military force, saying “we are more likely to end this fight sooner if we don’t tell our adversary the day we intend to stop fighting.”

But a significant number of lawmakers say Congress should exert its constitutional authority to conduct oversight of the president’s use of war powers, saying they’ve been shirking that responsibility for too long.

“Congress is not doing its job,” said Rep. Ken Buck, Colorado Republican. “We have not had the kind of vigorous debate that we should have before we get involved [militarily]. The 2001 AUMF is being used now in a way that it was never intended.”

Congressional opposition to the U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war has been rising as civilian deaths mount from a bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with backing from the administration, which is eager to stop Iran-backed insurgents in Yemen. Human rights groups have raised alarms about widespread starvation and the cholera outbreak.

Mr. Trump said Sunday that it “takes two to tango” to resolve the conflict in Yemen.

“I want Saudi [Arabia] to stop, but I want Iran to stop also,” he told Fox News.

The murder of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last month has added to objections in Congress to U.S. support for the Saudi military.

“Opinion is changing over whether or not we should be arming Saudi Arabia,” said Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. “They did some of it themselves by chopping up a dissident.”

Mr. Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he told a colleague last week that “I’m not sure who’s more evil Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

“If you ask me who’s the worst at spreading hatred and trying to engender terrorism around the world, it’s Saudi Arabia, hands down,” Mr. Paul said at a forum hosted by The American Conservative.

The measure introduced by Mr. Khanna in September invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution to remove the U.S. military from hostilities in Yemen “that have not been authorized by Congress.” Because it was “privileged” under the War Powers Act, the measure should have received a floor vote without being held up in committee for more than 15 days.

But House Republican leaders made a highly unusual move, adding a procedural ruling on a bill about management of the gray wolf population that stated the War Powers privileges would not apply to Mr. Khanna’s proposal on Yemen.

“This had never happened in the history of this country since the War Powers Act,” Mr. Khanna said in an interview. “You had this absurdity of debate on the House floor, with some of the people talking about the war in Yemen and the kids dying, and other people talking about why we need to hunt wolves.”

He said of GOP leaders, “They knew if they allowed a clean vote on Yemen, they would probably lose. Post-Khashoggi, they felt they wouldn’t be able to win a vote even offering a water-down alternate resolution. So got it de-privileged. This means if you have a president of the United States and a speaker of the House who believe we should be in foreign hostilities, they can basically deny Congress any vote in the future on matters of war and peace.”

Many Republicans doubt that Democrats can mount a serious effort to challenge Mr. Trump’s use of military force.

“In just a few short weeks, your party will assume the majority,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, Washington Republican, told Democrats on the House floor. “You will have the opportunity to hold the hearings and the markups and to take the votes of the all-important regular order that you continually talk about. I am looking forward to that.”

A spokesman for Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, didn’t respond to an inquiry about the likelihood of pursuing a new AUMF in the new Congress.

James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he doesn’t think such a push “goes anywhere.” Recent history suggests he’s on the mark.

President Obama, after initially resisting a new AUMF for striking the Islamic State in Syria, sent Congress a draft AUMF in early 2015 and urged lawmakers for the government to speak with one united voice in the fight.

But lawmakers disagreed about the proposal’s three-year limit, and about limitations on “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Republicans resisted placing such restrictions on any future president.

Then-Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said at the time, “Until the president gets serious about fighting the fight, until he has a strategy that makes sense, there’s no reason for us to give him less authority than what he has today, which is what he’s asking for.”

Mr. Buck said the lack of a revised AUMF is contributing to an ever-growing defense budget and more debt.

“The point is, we didn’t ask them to go fight in 17 places,” Mr. Buck said. “I think they [administration officials] misinterpret the AUMF. They do what they want, and we’re not trying to rein them in. I don’t think there is intense public pressure at this point. Without that pressure, we don’t act.”

He, too, says the new Congress will be more likely to raise the issue.

“The Republicans for the last four years were too concerned about keeping the majority and avoiding the tough votes,” Mr. Buck said at the American Conservative forum. “I think the key in Congress is that we have the debate. I would have liked to have seen the issue in Yemen resolved. I actually have more faith that the Democrats will raise this issue in the next Congress.”

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