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After Rep. Barbara Lee's Years-Long Fight, House Votes to Repeal 2002 Iraq War Powers Resolution

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East Bay Rep. Barbara Lee, pictured at a remembrance event in Oakland to pay tribute to George Floyd on May 25, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday moved to repeal a nearly two-decade-old war powers measure, marking what many lawmakers hope will be the beginning of the end of wide-ranging authorities given to the president after the 9/11 terror attacks.

The vote was 268 to 161. The measure now heads to the Senate.

Democratic East Bay Rep. Barbara Lee — who in 2001 and 2002 voted against two war power measures passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — was the sponsor of the repeal bill. The plan would end the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that greenlighted then-President George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq.

"It's been such a long time coming," Lee said ahead of Thursday's vote. "It's Congress' responsibility to authorize the use of force, and that authorization cannot be blank checks that stay as authorizations for any administration to use the way they see fit."

Lee's legislation has drawn growing bipartisan support. Her repeal of the 2002 authority, which was issued Oct. 16 of that year, has more than 130 cosponsors now.

In a statement issued Monday, the White House said it supports the bill.

KQED checked in with Lee on Wednesday about her long fight against the AUMF and the legislative road ahead.

“This is an outdated authorization,” Lee told KQED’s Brian Watt. "The Iraq War was over, actually. President Obama said it was officially over in 2011.”


What Is an Authorization for the Use of Military Force?

The Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have cited the 2002 AUMF to justify many counterterrorism measures all over the world. The precedent for this was set in 2001 when an earlier military authorization was passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

At the time, Lee cast the sole vote against the 2001 AUMF.

“There's no way we should have done that,” she said.

“We should have had a more narrowly targeted sunset and authorization if we were going to retaliate and bring the terrorists to justice in a way that would not cause more terror, more havoc and more anger in the world. So we've got to be more careful and more rational in how we use our military force.”

On Why AUMFs Are Still Around

“In many ways, Congress never really had the backbone to repeal it,” Lee said.

“When you look at what the Congress has been doing, it's been ... allowing our responsibilities to be taken on by the executive branch. The Constitution requires members of Congress to authorize the use of force if the president wants to go to war. It's easier to just say, 'Well, that wasn't our problem. Let the president do it. He has the authorization to use force wherever he or she wants to go and bomb or wants to engage our troops.' And I just think Congress has been missing in action. We've been derelict in our duty. And I've been trying year after year after year to get this repealed.”

Past Repeal Attempts

House lawmakers voted last year and in 2019 to repeal the 2002 AUMF. The Senate has never taken it up.

Lee said she’s “cautiously optimistic” when asked if this time senators would act.

“I'm building support in the Senate. I've got many members of the Senate who I know, who I have been working with over the years. And I'll be on it, as the bill moves out of the House, hopefully with bipartisan support and over to the Senate,” she said.

In the Senate, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine is sponsoring a similar bill with help from Indiana Republican Todd Young and four other GOP senators. On Wednesday, the repeal drew the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, for the first time.

"It will eliminate the danger of a future administration reaching back into the legal dustbin to use it as a justification for military adventurism," Schumer said.

A Senate committee is slated to take up the plan next week. Lee also has backing from the Biden administration.

“Elections do have consequences,” Lee said. “President Biden has issued a statement of support. I've been working with this administration since the campaign, actually, to make sure that they understood why we needed to repeal this, that I was so humbled and honored that the president really understood the reason I've been doing this.”

This story includes reporting from NPR's Claudia Grisales and KQED's Brian Watt and Alexander Gonzalez.

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