WASHINGTON ― After a years-long fight to reclaim Congress’s war powers from the presidency, supporters say they are in talks with the White House for a potentially game-changing “green light” from the Biden administration.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said “the stars are aligning” for his bill with Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., to repeal the Iraq-focused 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force. Unified government under Democrats and willingness in the White House to make a change have combines to create to a rare opening politically, the bipartisan duo said Monday at a Heritage foundation event.
President Joe Biden is supportive of Congress reclaiming its war powers, they said, because of his 36-year tenure in the Senate, which included time chairing Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Perhaps the strongest voice for a reassertion of congressional war powers for decades in the United States Senate was Joe Biden, so he’s invested intellectually and professionally in this position, as are some of his closest advisors,” Young said.
As Kaine sees it, Congressional Republicans who might have been wary of tying a Republican president’s hands shouldn’t have that hang-up under a Democratic president, and support from Biden himself ought to galvanize fellow Democrats.
“Some [Democrats] might say are you trying to clip [Biden’s] wings or curb his authority, but that’s why having a potential green light from the White House could be so important,” Kaine said. “I can deliver 50 of 50 [Senate Democratic] votes if the White House says, ‘green light.’”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Kaine held a phone call last week with the White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to determine Biden’s limits are on rewriting any of the existing war authorizations, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
While supporters await word from Biden, Menendez told Kaine he plans hold a vote on the legislation in late May or early June, a major step, especially if it receives Biden’s backing. The Hill broke news of those plans last week.
Kaine said he is eyeing the possibility, if the bill clears committee, for the language to be an amendment to the broad 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, where it would spark a “robust debate” this summer.
Advocates hope that passing repeal of the 2002 language primes Congress to reform the 2001 law which was passed to fight those responsible for the 9/11 attack and subsequently cited by the Obama administration in the fight against the Islamic State. But addressing the latter could run into stiffer resistance in Congress.
In a floor speech last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled support for the 2001 AUMF, saying it “authorizes the ongoing counterterrorism operations that have kept our homeland safe for 20 years.”
Grappling with such reform would not only be a matter of political courage, but an “intellectual challenge,” Kaine said. That authorization was stretched to wage fight nebulous non-state terror groups.
“There’s a still a U.S. need to counter non-state terrorist groups, but there is still an intellectual challenge to describe there ‘where,’ to describe the ‘who,’” he said. “Non-states don’t follow Geneva Conventions.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.