After 16 Years of War, Senate Finally Debates Need for War Debate

After 15 years of no debate on the floor of the Congress since the last war authorization and 16 years of war—the longest in the nation’s history—the U.S. Senate spent 45 minutes on Wednesday at least debating the need for Congress to debate the terms of a new war authorization. Today’s limited war authorization debate was sparked by Senator Rand Paul’s efforts to hold up the National Defense Authorization Act, which Senator McCain hopes the Senate will pass this week. Sen. Paul said he would continue such efforts if leadership failed to allow a vote on his amendment that would repeal the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs). Senators Cardin, Durbin, Murphy, and Moran took to the floor to support Paul’s effort to force a debate and a vote on a new authorization within six months by repealing existing authorizations.

Even those who spoke on the floor against Paul’s repeal amendment did so not because they disagreed that it was time for a new AUMF but because they wanted a replacement before voting to repeal existing authorities. Senator McCain, for instance, agreed that the time to pass a new AUMF had come, but argued that consideration of a new war authorization should be done under regular order with a full debate and amendment process. The Senate ultimately voted 61-36 to table Paul’s repeal amendment.

You can watch today’s debate and vote here:

Today’s long overdue debate and vote comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s renewed assertion that its broad authorities under the 2001 AUMF provide all the authority they believe is currently needed—a highly risky proposition given skepticism about whether courts would buy the stretching of the 2001 AUMF to cover detention of ISIS fighters. The Senate’s long overdue movement on the AUMF also comes on the heels of efforts by Senators Kaine and Flake to craft a bipartisan AUMF, hearings in both the House and Senate, and growing agitation in the House for a new AUMF on ISIS earlier this year.

AUMF skeptics like to think that Congress is never going to do anything to rein in existing AUMFs. They may be right. But given all the rumblings in both chambers over the past year, no one should be surprised if Congress finally decides to reclaim control over the scope of U.S. engagement in armed conflicts. The real question is whether they will reclaim control in name only by giving the President a fresh blank check or whether Congress will actually spell out what it is authorizing the executive branch to do. As many have noted, clear limits on the use of wartime powers to fight terrorism are critical for both national security and human rights. 

About the Author(s)

Rita Siemion

International Legal Counsel at Human Rights First. Follow her on Twitter (@ritasiemion).