Barbara Lee’s Long Quest to Curb Presidential War Powers Faces a New Test

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Democrats spent two decades building a consensus on reining in war authorizations that have been carried forward from their original intent. The withdrawal of Afghanistan has complicated the debate.

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WASHINGTON – Just days after the September 11 attacks, Representative Barbara Lee took a stand-alone stand as the only legislator in Congress to vote against invading Afghanistan, warning that giving the president such broad powers would prevent the country will be plunged into permanent war.


For the years following that vote, Ms. Lee, a California Democrat, remained a solitary figure on a seemingly quixotic quest, relentlessly – and often fruitlessly – to rein in the expansive war-making officials that their allies would. unanimously presented to the President.

Twenty years later, Ms. Lee is no longer on her own.

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Tired of ongoing conflicts abroad, lawmakers and voters from both parties have come around to Ms. Lee’s view that such authority has been abused by presidents of both parties to wage a war far greater than Congress intended.

Major Congressional committees have voted on a bipartisan basis for the past two years to repeal the 2001 law. And for the first time, a real route exists to revoke the 2002 authorization for the invasion of Iraq. Forty-nine House Republicans joined nearly every Democrat in approving that repeal in June, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the legislation last month.

Now, as legislative momentum appeared to be on Ms. Lee’s back, her mission is facing a new test: can Congress’ hunger to revisit decades-old authorities still hold up when lawmakers Be hooked on the consequences of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. . The chaotic departure has raised new fears about a resurgence of terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and ISIS-K.

“I am hoping that members of Congress realize that they cannot simply disappear into action and not burden the president,” Ms. Lee said in an interview.

But as Ms. Lee knows all too well, it is a posture her colleagues have been comfortable with for nearly two decades. Since 2002, when lawmakers gave President George W. Bush the power to invade Iraq, Congress has not voted on a new authorization of military force – or to reduce existing ones.

Since then, the presidents of both sides have called on war officials from 2002 and 2001 to justify military force in several other places, expanding laws to justify open war around the world.

When Ms. Lee voted against the 60-word resolution in 2001, three days after she and her colleagues vacated the Capitol on September 11, the same scenario expected to happen.

On the floor of the House that day, in alternating loud and fiery speeches, Republicans and Democrats spoke in a furious voice, vowing to destroy the terrorists who were planning the attacks and unite in support of Mr. A Republican congressman predicted that the legislation would pass unanimously, adding that the show of unity would bring him much comfort.

Then Ms. Lee got up to speak.

“No matter how difficult this vote is, some of us should be urged to exercise restraint,” she said. “Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us have to say, let’s step back for a moment. Let us pause for a minute and think about the implications of our actions today so that it doesn’t get out of control.

In the end, 518 members of Congress, including senators, voted in favor of the proposal. Only Ms. Lee disagreed.

The daughter of a retired lieutenant colonel who fought in World War II and Korea, 75-year-old Ms. Lee has long insisted she is not a pacifist. As she contemplated her vote, she said, it was her background in psychiatric social work—where she learned the importance of never making decisions in the heat of emotion—that helped her make up her mind.

His stance soon met with a sharp backlash. Some of Ms. Lee’s closest aides in Congress, recalled by her, initially thought she had voted by mistake. When they learned that he had deliberately opposed the offer, they urged him to change his position, warning him that unless he did so, he would be removed from office.

Outside Washington, voters outraged by her stance seduced Ms. Lee with hate mail and death threats to the extent that she needed a security detail, aides recalled.

But she stood firm. In 2003, Ms. Lee introduced an amendment that called for a study to determine whether the intelligence community withheld or manipulated information from UN weapons inspectors, the basis of the country’s invasion of Iraq. made. This got 185 votes, 33 less than passing.

So Ms. Lee found other opportunities to press the issue, year after year introducing similar amendments to repeal the force’s 11-era authorizations and forcing her colleagues to go on record. Behind the scenes, he pressed the buttons of MPs from both parties, garnering votes to present his case.

“At every step, there will probably be two or three more members with whom I will sit down and talk,” Ms. Lee said. “We’re just getting this far. It’s a marathon.”

A breakthrough came in 2017, when the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to repeal the 2001 authorization.

“You’re having converts everywhere, Ms. Lee,” Rodney Freilinghusen, Republican from New Jersey and then chairman of the panel, said at the time. “In fact, you’ve been incredibly persistent and tenacious on this issue over the years. I think we recognize you, and obviously you have allies in the room. We share your concern.”

Paul D. Ryan, then-president, unilaterally removed it from the unilateral spending bill, essentially killing the repeal. But the effort revealed a great deal of support among conservatives to end military conflicts abroad, which President Donald J. Reflects a major pledge made by Trump.

In fact, some of Ms. Lee’s most ardent supporters have been unlikely allies in her crusade, including staunch conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus – some of whom were vocal in supporting the Stop the Steel movement, which stormed the Capitol on January 6. was given air.

“It’s more difficult now,” she said. “It’s a very difficult moment to talk with and try to work with people who don’t believe” the election was legitimate.

Ms. Lee, who now leads the House appropriations panel that oversees foreign affairs, said she was surprised to see some Republicans with whom she has been working in an effort to oust President Biden after withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan. has worked.

“Either they were silent on the withdrawal or were very critical – even the Republicans who supported it when Trump released the date for the withdrawal,” she said. “So seeing them now trying to recreate history is pretty shocking.”

That whiplash – combined with long-standing vocal criticism on both sides – could jeopardize efforts now underway in the Senate to repeal the 2002 authorization, which proponents of 2001 move to do away with the more elaborate legislation. see as.

In a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah told Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that the Biden administration “rethink” its previous recommendation that Congress work with the president to repeal the authorizations.

“We have to see to make sure we have all the authority we need for any potential contingency, including the re-emergence of Al Qaeda or ISIS-K as a threat”, replied Mr. Blinken. “If we don’t have those authorizations, we should get them, whether that means revisiting those authorizations or writing new ones, which I think would be the most appropriate thing to do if necessary.”

For now, polling shows that ending the country’s military conflicts abroad remains fairly popular among voters. And activists in favor of the repeal who are doing their own whip count on Capitol Hill say they have seen little evidence to suggest that their efforts may be crushed.

“We just can’t get over that it’s stopping people from saying: ‘Well, wait a minute. Should America really get involved in all these wars?'” of Strategic Advocacy at the Allied Committee on National Legislation. Associate Secretary General Jim Casson said.

“Maybe 20 years ago that was a stand-alone vote,” he said, “but looking at today, can we really argue that these 20 years of war have given the United States what it deserves? what did he expect to achieve?”

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