As American troops engage in combat with Islamic terrorist groups across several continents, the United States government is still relying on military force authorizations from 2001 and 2002 as legal justification for their deployment.
Thirty-six senators from both parties tried and failed to change that on Wednesday, marking the first time the full body has voted on the authorizations since 2002.
The Senate voted to kill an amendment by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky designed to force Congress to debate and consider new authorizations to cover the very different wars that the United States is fighting now.
“It’s long time since we had a debate in Congress over whether we should be at war or not,” Paul said in a fiery speech from the Senate floor. “This war could go on forever, this is 1984, this is George Orwell,” Paul said as he ripped his colleagues for “abdicating your constitutional duty.” Two other Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Dean Heller of Nevada, joined Paul along with 33 Democrats.
The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in particular has been expanded far beyond its stated purpose of attacking those responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and any “associated forces.” That vague “associated forces” language was used by the Obama administration to justify tremendous military incursions to fight the self-declared Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as well as Shabab in Somalia. Neither group existed in 2001.
Paul’s amendment would have repealed both AUMF’s with a six month waiting period to give Congress time to pass another.
But opponents of the amendment argued that it would sow confusion in the military and among American allies because there was a chance Congress would not be able to agree on a new AUMF in six months. “You can’t replace something with nothing,” Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island said on the Senate floor in explaining why he opposed the amendment even while he agreed with the spirit of it.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who’s had fierce debates with Paul in the past over foreign policy, was more blunt in his criticism, calling the amendment “irresponsible” and “premature.”
It’s unclear, however, when the amendment would reach maturity. The Senate passed the 2001 AUMF 15 years and 364 days ago, well beyond the age of puberty.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who supported Paul’s amendment, and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who did not, have spent this year crafting a new AUMF and the Foreign Relations Committee they serve on recently held a closed-door hearing on it with officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. There is no set timeline for when that AUMF would come up for a vote in committee or on the floor of the Senate, not to mention that the House of Representatives would have to pass the AUMF as well.
“It seems to me that the sacrifice of the millions who serve in active guard and reserve, of the thousands that are deployed overseas in theaters of war right now, their sacrifice should call upon us to have a debate and do the job that we are supposed to do,” Kaine said in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday evening in support of Paul’s amendment.
President Barack Obama repeatedly urged Congress to pass a new AUMF against the Islamic State group, but Congress did not act. Obama also undermined his own case by arguing that even if Congress didn’t pass it, he could still use the 2001 one to justify his actions.
Now the Trump administration is adopting the same position as the Obama administration.
White House Legislative Director Marc Short told reporters on Tuesday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that the 2001 AUMF sufficiently authorized Trump’s current military actions against terrorist groups.
“The president believes that the current Authorization for Use of Military Force is sufficient for our needs right now,” he said. “We’re not looking to change it.”