WASHINGTON — The Senate took a first step Thursday toward repealing two measures that give open-ended approval for military action in Iraq, pushing to end that authority as the United States marks the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War.
Senators voted 68-27 to move forward on legislation that would repeal the 2002 measure that greenlighted that March 2003 invasion of Iraq and also a 1991 measure that sanctioned the U.S.-led Gulf War to expel Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Nineteen Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the repeal.
The bipartisan effort comes as lawmakers in both parties are increasingly seeking to claw back congressional powers over U.S. military strikes and deployments, arguing that the war authorizations are no longer necessary and subject to misuse if they are left on the books. President Joe Biden has backed the push, and the White House issued a statement Thursday in support.
“Repeal of these authorizations would have no impact on current U.S. military operations and would support this administration’s commitment to a strong and comprehensive relationship with our Iraqi partners,” the White House said.
Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., said they believe the 68 votes in support send a powerful message to Americans who believe their voice should be heard on matters of war and peace. Kaine and Young have led the push for repeal and have worked for several years on the issue.
“It is time for Congress to have its voice heard on these matters, and I believe this will establish a very important precedent moving forward,” Young said.
It’s unclear whether leaders in the Republican-controlled House will bring the bill up for a vote, even if it passes the Senate. Forty-nine House Republicans supported the legislation when then-majority Democrats held a vote two years ago, but current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has opposed it.
Senate Republicans are also split on the legislation. While the 19 GOP senators voted for it, opponents argue that the repeal could project weakness to U.S. enemies. They have pointed out that President Donald Trump’s administration cited the 2002 Iraq war resolution as part of its legal justification for a 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani.
The October 2002 votes to give President George W. Bush broad authority for the invasion — coming just a month before the midterm elections that year — became a defining moment for many members of Congress as the country debated whether a military strike was warranted. The U.S. was already at war then in Afghanistan, the country that hosted the al-Qaida plotters responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, something Iraq played no part in.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who was in the Senate at the time and voted against the resolution, said on the floor before Thursday’s vote that "I look back on it, as I’m sure others do, as one of the most important votes that I ever cast.”
“The repeal of this authorization of use the use of military force does not mean the United States has become a pacifist nation,” Durbin said. “It means that the United States is going to be a constitutional nation and the premise of our Founding Fathers will be respected.”
The Bush administration had drummed up support among members of Congress and Americans for invading Iraq by promoting false intelligence claims about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.
After the initial March 2003 invasion, American ground forces quickly discovered that the allegations of nuclear or chemical weapons programs were baseless. But the U.S. overthrow of Iraq’s security forces precipitated a brutal sectarian fight and violent campaigns by Islamic extremist groups in Iraq. Car bombings, assassinations, torture and kidnapping became a part of daily life in Iraq for years.
Nearly 5,000 U.S. troops were killed in the war. Iraqi deaths are estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in the hours before the vote that he was glad that the repeal is a bipartisan effort after the Iraq conflict was the cause of “so much bitterness” in the past.
“Americans are tired of endless wars in the Middle East,” Schumer said.
The Senate will consider the legislation next week, with possible amendments from both sides.
One of the amendments that could be considered would repeal a separate authorization of military force passed immediately after the 2001 attacks. It gave Bush broad authority for the invasion of Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism but did not name one country, instead broadly approving force “against those nations, organizations, or persons” that planned or aided the attacks on the U.S.
But there is less support in the Senate and Congress overall for repealing the broader authority. Biden and some lawmakers have supported replacing or revising that authorization in the future, but “not right now,” Kaine said, as it is still used by the military.
In its statement of policy, the White House appeared to reference the 2001 authority, saying that Biden “remains committed to working with the Congress to ensure that outdated authorizations for the use of military force are replaced with a narrow and specific framework more appropriate to protecting Americans from modern terrorist threats.”