Senators aim to reclaim war powers from executive branch
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Senators aim to reclaim war powers from executive branch

A bipartisan trio of senators unveiled new legislation Tuesday to try to claw back war powers from the executive branch, an effort to reassert Congress’ powers to authorize war and to provide a stronger check on foreign arms sales.

The legislation faces long odds of becoming law, but it represents the latest and most sweeping effort to date from lawmakers seeking to give Congress a larger role in deciding how US military force is used around the globe.

The bill, introduced by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, would overhaul the War Powers Act to require congressional authorization of “hostilities” within 20 days and would automatically cut off funding for military action that’s not authorized.

It would also require Congress to vote to approve foreign arms sales above $14 million. In the current process, Congress must muster a veto-proof majority within a limited window to block arms sales.

“Over the last several decades, there has been a very dangerous shift in national security powers and war-making powers from the legislative branch to the executive branch,” Murphy said at a news conference Tuesday. “This shift in national security power to the president has resulted in endless wars, reckless levels of arms sales and national emergencies that seem to have no termination.”

The senators introducing the legislation represent a broad ideological spectrum but they harbor the same concerns when it comes to foreign policy and the executive branch’s growing war powers over the past two decades despite Congress’ power to declare war in the Constitution.

Congress looks to repeal war authorizations

There’s already an effort underway to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization approved before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Legislation from Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California passed the House in June, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to soon take up a similar bill from Sens. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, and Todd Young, an Indiana Republican.

The Biden administration supports a repeal of the 2002 authorization for use of military force, saying it’s no longer needed.

The lawmakers are also eyeing a rewrite of the 2001 war authorization passed in the days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, though they acknowledge that tackling that authorization — which has been cited by multiple administrations for military action around the world — is a bigger lift.

Many Republicans are opposed to repealing the 2002 war authorization, arguing they shouldn’t tie the commander in chief’s hands at a time when US forces and personnel are being attacked in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias. It’s still unclear whether the effort from Kaine and Young will have the votes to pass in the Senate, let alone any effort to replace the broader 2001 authorization.

The new legislation from Murphy, Sanders and Lee would go even further, sunsetting all existing war authorizations within six months.

Murphy acknowledged it would be a challenge to get the White House on board with the legislation but said he remained hopeful that the lawmakers would eventually be able to convince their colleagues and the administration to consider the provisions, even if it’s in pieces.

“Presidents are never eager to give away their national security powers,” Murphy said. “So we understand any legislation that transfers or changes the existing status quo on national security is going to be an uphill climb when it comes to getting a presidential signature.”

But the senators argued that their bill represents a growing uneasiness some lawmakers have with the executive branch’s ability to conduct military operations around the globe under both the 2001 authorization for use of military force and the President’s Article II authorities under the Constitution as commander in chief to defend the country.

“I believe President Biden made a courageous and very difficult decision in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, bringing the longest war in our country’s history to an end,” Sanders said. “Let us be clear: When that authorization was given in 2001, I suspect that not one member of Congress dreamed that American troops would still be in Afghanistan nearly 20 years later under a vague and expansive authorization.”

Lee pointed to President Barack Obama’s decision to come to Congress before launching airstrikes in Syria in 2013 as an example of how the process should work — where hesitancy among lawmakers voting to approve the military action ultimately led to the US not attacking Syria.

“I think that saved him from what would have been a lot of headaches,” Lee said.

Bill would require congressional approval of arms sales

When the Biden administration launched airstrikes along the Iraq-Syria border in June targeting Iranian-backed militia groups that had attacked US personnel and facilities in Iraq, President Joe Biden cited his Article II authorities under the Constitution to act in self-defense.

After that military action, Murphy raised concerns that the retaliatory strikes would qualify as hostilities under the War Powers Act, which he argued would require Congress to authorize the military action, though critics of that law argue it’s unconstitutional.

Currently, the administration has 60 days under the War Powers Act to obtain congressional authorization. But in order to stop US military action, Congress has to cut off funding. Under the new proposal, the clock would be cut down to 20 days and the funding would be automatically curtailed without congressional authorization.

The legislation also addresses several disputes Congress has had with the executive branch related to war powers.

In 2019, then-President Donald Trump vetoed three resolutions disapproving of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, overruling the vote to block the sales. In May, lawmakers raised objections to arms sales to Israel amid intensifying violence in the region, but they had little time to try to force a vote to block the sales.

Instead of requiring votes from Congress to block foreign arms sales approved by the State Department, the legislation requires Congress to vote to approve the sales if they include certain types of weapons and are greater than $14 million.

The bill would also put checks on the president’s ability to declare national emergencies, something Trump related to the US-Mexico border in 2019 to direct billions of dollars in funding to build a wall on the southern border.

The legislation would require Congress to approve an emergency declaration and specific emergency powers and would restrict what actions the executive branch can take under a national emergency that aren’t approved by Congress.

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