Congress wants to de­bate war pow­ers

Panel says Congress has dodged its re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Richard Lard­ner

WASH­ING­TON» A stun­ning move this week by a House panel to force a de­bate on new pres­i­den­tial war pow­ers re­vealed mount­ing frus­tra­tion that Congress has for too long dodged one of its most im­por­tant re­spon­si­bil­i­ties: to de­cide whether to send Amer­i­can fight­ing forces into harm’s way.

The mea­sure crafted by Rep. Bar­bara Lee of Cal­i­for­nia, an anti-war Demo­crat and the only mem­ber of Congress to op­pose the post-Sept. 11, 2001, au­tho­riza­tion, de­mands a de­bate on new war pow­ers to re­flect how the dy­nam­ics of the bat­tle­field have shifted. For ex­am­ple, Amer­i­can troops are bat­tling an en­emy — the Is­lamic State — that didn’t ex­ist 16 years ago in a coun­try — Syria — that the U.S. didn’t ex­pect to be fight­ing in.

And there are con­cerns the U.S. is be­ing tugged more deeply into Syria.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump warned Mon­day that Syria will pay a “heavy price” if it car­ries out an­other chem­i­cal weapons at­tack. In April, Trump or­dered the fir­ing of dozens of Tom­a­hawk mis­siles at an air base in cen­tral Syria, mark­ing the first time the U.S. has di­rectly struck Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s forces dur­ing the coun­try’s six-year civil war.

The U.S. mil­i­tary ear­lier this month shot down a Syr­ian Air Force fighter jet, and the U.S.-led coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State has hit pro-gov­ern­ment forces in Syria with airstrikes. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion also is send­ing close to 4,000 ad­di­tional Amer­i­can forces to Afghanistan, Amer­ica’s long­est war.

Mem­bers of the Repub­li­can-led House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee voted over­whelm­ingly Thurs­day to add Lee’s amend­ment to its ver­sion of the 2018 mil­i­tary spend­ing bill. Her mea­sure would re­peal the 2001 au­tho­riza­tion — which has been broadly in­ter­preted by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his pre­de­ces­sors to per­mit mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions be­yond those en­vi­sioned at the time — 240 days after the spend­ing bill is en­acted.

Lee said the eight months “would al­low plenty of time for Congress to fi­nally live up to its con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion to de­bate and vote on any new” au­tho­riza­tion for the use of mil­i­tary force. To un­der­score how the 2001 au­thor­ity has been stretched be­yond its in­tended lim­its, she said the au­tho­riza­tion has been in­voked to de­ploy troops to eight dif­fer­ent coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ye­men and Syria.

“Any ad­min­is­tra­tion can rely on this blank check to wage war,” Lee said.

Lee won the vo­cal back­ing of sev­eral con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers, high­light­ing the breadth of sup­port for de­bat­ing new war pow­ers. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Congress has avoided its war-mak­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for years.

“We’ve had lead­er­ship hon­estly on both sides that have put off this de­bate again and again and again,” Cole said. “If we’re go­ing to send peo­ple to war, we owe them the sup­port of the Congress of the United States.”

Rep. Chris Ste­wart, R-Utah, and Lee are about as far apart on the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum as two peo­ple could be. But Ste­wart, a for­mer Air Force B-1B bomber pi­lot, voted for her amend­ment. He said U.S. ser­vice mem­bers are watch­ing Congress.

“They no­tice that Congress doesn’t have the guts to stand up and have this de­bate,” Ste­wart said.

Yet if his­tory is a guide, the amend­ment to cut off the 2001 au­tho­riza­tion for the use of mil­i­tary force against the ter­ror­ist groups who car­ried out the 9/11 at­tacks will be scratched from a Pen­tagon spend­ing bill be­fore the leg­is­la­tion ever reaches the House floor.

Robert Ch­es­ney, an ex­pert on na­tional se­cu­rity law and a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas law school, said there’s lit­tle in­cen­tive for con­gres­sional lead­ers and the Trump White House to open the 2001 au­tho­riza­tion to changes. Prop­erly or not, he said, the law has been read ex­pan­sively to cover all cur­rent mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, whereas a re­write may put lim­its and bar­ri­ers on what the Pen­tagon can do.

“There’s noth­ing forc­ing their hand,” Ch­es­ney said. “The con­cern is that no one is quite sure what might come out of the re­vi­sion process.”

Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the chair­woman of the panel’s de­fense sub­com­mit­tee, op­posed the mea­sure and warned her col­leagues they were mak­ing a se­ri­ous mis­take. She called the amend­ment a “deal­breaker” that would tie the hands of the U.S. to act on its own or with other coun­tries to at­tack and de­feat ter­ror­ist groups.

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