Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Monday seized on the deadly ambush in Niger to call for a new congressional authorization for U.S. military operations overseas.
McCain told reporters Monday that he and the Armed Services panel’s top Democrat, Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, are working on a proposal to update the broad war powers Congress gave the commander in chief after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month have stoked fresh interest in a new war powers vote, which the Trump administration has indicated it would not oppose — although it says it has all the legal authority it needs to conduct anti-terrorism operations under the existing 2001 authorization.
“We’re going to have to have” an updated authorization for the use of military force, said McCain, who has previously called for a new war powers resolution.
Still, the new momentum may not translate into floor time for a debate any time soon. Previous attempts this year to repeal or rewrite the law have fallen flat among congressional GOP leaders.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had already been scheduled to hold an Oct. 30 hearing on the president’s war powers, which Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called “excellent” timing Thursday. But he remains unsure about any practical movement on an updated war powers measure.
“I don’t know,” Corker told reporters. “I mean, there are so many bigger issues. I mean, it’s the beginning of a much larger conversation.”
Indeed, lawmakers as well as senior Pentagon officials are still getting up to speed on critical facts regarding the Oct. 4 attack that killed four members of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Armed Services panel members are set for a Thursday briefing on the ambush in Niger, where the Pentagon’s Africa Command has stepped up its efforts against militants affiliated with the Islamic State terrorist group.
McCain told reporters Monday that “we expect more information” about the deadly battle. “We are getting some cooperation and information — which we were not getting before.”
Senior senators in both parties, including Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said on Sunday that they were unaware of the size of the U.S. military presence in Niger, though the White House formally notified the Hill about troops in Niger in June.
Lawmakers are now pressing to know more about the events of Oct. 4, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford pledged on Monday to provide those details.
“We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened,” the four-star Marine general said.
“With regard to Congress and the criticism we’re not providing enough information, … if the Congress doesn’t believe that they’re not getting sufficient information, then I need to double my efforts to provide them with information,” Dunford added.
Defense Secretary James Mattis last week said the type of attack that occurred in Niger was “considered unlikely,” but he nonetheless promised to “rapidly” release the findings of an investigation into the incident.
The United States, Dunford said, has 800 troops in Niger, with most assisting local forces against the threat of ISIS. In all, he said, more than 6,000 U.S troops are in 53 nations in Africa.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) acknowledged in a Monday interview that securing floor time for a war powers debate from Republican leaders will be difficult, noting that a military authorization “really needs some space on its own” rather than getting debated as part of Congress’ crowded year-end schedule.
“Time on the floor is tough — this isn’t something that has a year-end” deadline, said Kaine, a longtime advocate for a new war powers debate. Nevertheless, he added, the Niger ambush “ups the stakes for finally trying to get this right.”
This year’s previous pitches to update the 2001 war authorization have been attached to other legislation, and have failed to come to fruition. A proposal to repeal the authorization by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was added to annual House defense spending legislation in June, but removed from the bill by House GOP leadership before it went to the floor.
And an attempt in September by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to add a repeal of the 2001 and 2002 war authorizations to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act was rebuffed by the Senate.
Lee, the only lawmaker to vote against the 2001 war authorization, called moves by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to derail her proposal “undemocratic.”
“People are asking, ‘Why are we in Niger?’ Rightfully so,” Lee said in an interview with Politico. “Well, a debate would provide information and answer a lot of questions and put Congress back in the mix in terms of us doing our job, because certainly we’re not.”
One of the Democratic senators who voted to table Paul’s repeal proposal, however, suggested on Monday that he is now open to a new war powers vote.
“This should be a debate on the Senate floor,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) told CNN. “At least for a couple of weeks or a number of days. And then have a vote at the end of it.”
Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.
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