WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate voted to scuttle Sen. Rand Paul’s measure to sunset America’s current war authorizations on Wednesday.
The debate and vote themselves were notable, as congressional leaders have repeatedly headed off big votes on reclaiming the legislative branch’s constitutional war powers, likely to avoid the political consequences.
The White House’s use of an authorization from a decade and half ago is a legal stretch at best, according to critics who’ve argued for years that Congress needs to pass a new one to account for how the dynamics of the battlefield have changed.
The final vote, 61-36, saw a total of 13 Democrats joining Republicans voting to table the measure. Republicans Sens. Paul, Mike Lee, of Utah, and Dean Heller, of Nevada, voted against tabling Paul’s measure. Paul, of Kentucky, is a leader of the GOP’s non-interventionist wing and longtime advocate for an AUMF vote.
To fight the Islamic State group, the Trump administration, as did the Obama administration, relies on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that was approved by Congress in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. A separate authorization for the war in Iraq approved in 2002 also remains in force.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., noted that the vote comes after President Trump announced the Afghanistan war will go on longer, bombed facilities of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and as the White House has been unreceptive to overtures from Congress to talk about a new AUMF.
“A new administration, every passing year we get farther away from the [original AUMF] vote, we use in more countries, on more actors,” said Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The president has taken steps — the missile strike in Syria to go after chemical weapons — that clearly there’s no support for that in the current AUMF, but they’re using abroad definition on things that aren’t legally justified.”
The measure would have ended the current AUMF six months after its passage, a gambit to force Congress to debate whether to grant new authorization to the current president for current conflicts.
Paul had offered it as an amendment to the $700 billion 2018 defense policy bill. On Wednesday, he blasted colleagues in a Senate floor speech for abdicating their responsibilities under the Constitution and allowing “a perpetual war until the end of time.”
“I would say to my colleagues: ‘Do your job, this is your constitutional role,’” Paul said. “The 9/11 declaration has been interpreted so widely, the president can do anything. That’s not what the Founding Fathers intended.”
But a bipartisan bloc of senators — including the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. — opposed Paul’s measure. Some said they agreed with Paul in principle, but argued it would be irresponsible, and send the wrong message to troops overseas, allies and enemies, to kill the current AUMF without a replacement teed up.
“You can’t replace something with nothing, and we have nothing,” Reed said.
“This is six months of more time when in the last 16 years, even at the request of a president, we have not been able to come together as a Senate, and I don't know where the House is on this, but I think equally befuddled to provide the kind of specific language that we need for an AUMF,” Reed said.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., moved to table Paul’s amendment.
“Doing away with the legal basis under which we're going against ISIS today before we've implemented and put in place another one, to me, is not prudent,” Corker said. “It would mean we would immediately need to begin winding down our operations. And it is not in our national security interest.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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.