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House panel votes to force new debate on terror war

Congress may finally be getting fed up with war on autopilot.

A powerful House committee voted unexpectedly Thursday to require Congress to debate and approve U.S. military action in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other far-flung countries — in a surprise victory for a longtime Democratic critic of the nearly two-decade-old war on terrorism.

The amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee of California — one of countless she has offered in recent years — is only a modest first step in getting Congress to update the authorization of military force that lawmakers adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But Thursday’s voice vote in the GOP-controlled Appropriations Committee is a symbolic move forward.

Even Republicans with military experience embraced Lee’s defense spending bill amendment, which would repeal the 2001 authorization. They noted that the anti-terror struggle has evolved markedly since the days when U.S. troops hunted Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, yet Congress has never debated and authorized the fight against newer extremist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Members of the military “notice that we don’t have the courage to debate this and to give them the authority to go do this,” said Chris Stewart (R-Utah), who served in the Air Force and comes from a family of soldiers. “And I know that from my friends who are in the military right now.”

Scott Taylor (R-Va.), a former Navy SEAL, echoed that sentiment. “I think we’ve seen a disproportionate sacrifice with the military community that has gone over and over again,” he said. “And I believe that we owe them the debate.”

Others on the appropriations panel credited Lee with pushing the fight for so long.

“When I came in this morning, I was going to vote ‘no,'” Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said during the debate, telling Lee: “I love the fact that you are in a position to take a lot of positions that I don’t take. That’s what we need. I’m going to be with you on this, and your tenacity has come through.”

Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) also turned to the San Francisco-area lawmaker. “You’re making converts all over the place, Ms. Lee,” he said. “And indeed, you have been incredibly persistent and perseverant on this issue for a number of years. I think we recognize you, and obviously you have allies in the room. We share your concern.”

The vote comes as President Donald Trump is steadily delegating more authority to military commanders in the battle against the Islamic State and a host of other extremist groups on several continents, raising new concerns that civilians are exerting too little oversight.

Later Thursday, however, the rank-and-file’s AUMF push was already hitting resistance from the congressional leadership. In an interview with Real Clear Politics, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the passage of Lee’s amendment a “mistake.”

“There’s a right way to deal with this, and an appropriations bill I don’t think is the right way to deal with this,” Ryan told the news organization. “What matters to me is that we don’t undercut the military, and whatever we do, we don’t put ourselves, meaning the military, in a disadvantageous position.”

Still, Thursday’s action “sends a positive signal that the time is right to have this discussion,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has pushed similar measures in the Senate to no avail, told POLITICO. “It sets a deadline to try to force congressional action, and we need congressional action.”

Lee’s amendment would repeal the 2001 authorization within 240 days of the enactment of appropriations for fiscal year 2018 — forcing Congress to take up a new one.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said it’s all the more urgent for Congress to pass a new military-force authorization.

“I think the 2001 [law] is very ill-fitting for today,” said Flake, who is offering a new authorization bill with Kaine that he expects to be marked up in July. But he added: “You shouldn’t get rid of it and have nothing, so it’s time for a replacement. And I think we’ve got the bill to do it.”

Only Kay Granger (R-Texas), who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, spoke against Lee’s amendment in Thursday’s committee meeting, arguing that it would cripple the military’s ability to conduct counterterror operations.

“The amendment is a deal-breaker and would tie the hands of the U.S. to act unilaterally or with partner nations with regard to Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists,” Granger said.

Although the Pentagon has been reluctant to disclose the number of U.S. troops stationed throughout the Middle East, recent reports indicate approximately 8,400 are stationed in Afghanistan, 7,000 in Iraq, and more than 900 in Syria.

Lee told reporters after the vote that “this is one great first step. … Our troops deserve this kind of accountability from Congress.”

“Both Democrats and Republicans really understand the need to repeal this 2001 authorization,” added Lee, who was the only member of Congress to vote against the post-Sept. 11 measure.

“I’ve been working on this for many, many years,” she said. “As you know, I didn’t vote for it in 2001, because I knew then it was a blank check that would allow any president the authority to use force. We’ve been building support, bipartisan support. I’ve been working with my Republican colleagues for years to get to this point. So I hope the Republican leadership really understands now.”

She also credited a new generation of veterans serving in Congress with helping drive the message “that veterans and current active-duty servicemen and women need Congress to do its job to not be missing-in-action.”

The vote drew quick praise from groups that support a much more aggressive oversight role by Congress, which is empowered by the Constitution to declare war but has steadily ceded much of its authority to presidents in recent decades.

“It is long past time that Congress do its job and have a debate and vote on America’s endless wars,” said Stephen Miles, director of Win Without War. The group urged Congress to maintain the provision in the defense appropriations bill.

Peace Action, another advocacy group, called the vote “an opportunity to course correct after a decade and a half of failed U.S. policy in the Middle East.”

The 2001 authorization has been a major focus of debate for years but has gotten little congressional action. Three presidents have used the 2001 legislation as the legal basis to combat Al Qaeda and its affiliates, even though the United States’ current military operations against terrorism barely resemble the nature or the geography of the landscape back then.

A small but vocal group of Democrats and Republicans has repeatedly accused Congress of abdicating its role by allowing the president such a free hand — and has sought various ways to bring the issue to a full vote in both chambers.

President Barack Obama asked Congress to revisit the issue in 2015, but his proposed language pleased neither hawks, who saw it as too restrictive, nor doves, who viewed it as too broad.

Some, however, see a new ingredient in the mixture: an unpredictable commander in chief who makes more members of Congress nervous and willing to make a new effort to exert oversight over national security decisions.

Beyond that, Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said, the United States is now “at war against an enemy that did not exist” when Congress bestowed the unilateral authority upon the executive branch.

“How an [authorization] that was passed 16 years ago, before I was in Congress, could possibly be stretched to cover this is just beyond belief to me,” Cole said.

Gregory Hellman, Seung Min Kim and John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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