WASHINGTON — Democrats are in wide agreement the post-2001 war authorizations should be repealed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
But what to replace it with opens up a tough conversation about where the military should be used, and where it shouldn’t. The House Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, said as much in a C-SPAN interview Thursday.
“Legislatively, to craft the language — in such a way that it makes sure the president doesn’t have a blank check to use military force wherever and whenever he wants, but at the same time, making sure that he does have the authority to use it when necessary — is difficult,” Smith said.
“Congress needs to pass an AUMF, we need to work together together to figure out: What is our policy?” Smith said, using the acronym for Authorization of Use of Military Force. “What should we be using our military for to protect our national security?”
Democrats for the most part seem to agree, according to Pelosi, who said the House Democratic Caucus discussed at its meeting Wednesday how to unite Congress around replacing the current war authorizations.
That pits Democrats against the Trump administration and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who said this week he won’t allow any bill to come to the House floor that he thinks would restrict military commanders’ ability to fight.
Earlier this week in the Senate, a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unveiled a major rewrite of the AUMF, which would give President Donald Trump new abilities to fight terror groups while reserving Congress the ability to limit the president.
The bill contains no expiration date, fueling criticism from Democrats and others that the proposal is too expansive.
The renewed debate over the authorization comes after Trump approved missile strikes in Syria late last week to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for allegedly carrying out recent chemical attacks against civilians there.
The proposed war authorization does not address Assad and Syria, as it’s focused on terrorist groups.
The administration holds that Trump had the authority to carry out the strikes under Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which permits the president to use military force to protect the national interest from immediate threats.
Many Democrats and some Republicans disagree, saying that interpretation would give the president almost unlimited war powers.
“It’s beyond illegal — it’s unconstitutional,” Republican Rep. Thomas Massie said Tuesday after a classified briefing on the strikes from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Massie told BuzzFeed that Congress “could do a lot” to check the president’s power. “But there are not 218 members here who are concerned about the president’s ability to act, in my opinion, in conflict with the Constitution,” Massie said.
On Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, sent a letter to Trump requesting he detail the legal basis for those U.S. military strikes.
They called “not sufficient” the letter Trump sent Congress asserting he used his power as commander in chief to defend important national interests
Mattis and the White House have publicly refuted a New York Times report that there was an internal debate on the issue — that Mattis urged Trump to seek congressional approval last week before the strike.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has called on Congress to debate a Syria AUMF and for the administration to present a Syria strategy. On Thursday, she said Trump’s notification to Congress about the Syria strikes included no assurance that he would seek its approval for further action.
“Here he is saying he’s not coming to Congress,” Pelosi said. “What is the security risk to the United States? Let’s have that discussion.”
Smith, who opposed the Syria strike, said the administration has not laid out the strategy for reaching its difficult objectives in the complex, multi-sided conflict. The administration seeks to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons and the Islamic State group from securing a haven — goals with which Smith seemed to agree.
“The policy is clear, the ability to achieve it is not,” Smith said. “I don’t think lobbing missiles once a year, saying ‘mission accomplished’ and calling it good is going to achieve that policy objective.”
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.