WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Wednesday to repeal the resolution that gave a green light for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a bipartisan effort to return a basic war power to Congress 20 years after an authorization many now view as a mistake.
Iraqi deaths are estimated in the hundreds of thousands, and nearly 5,000 U.S. troops were killed in the war after President George W. Bush's administration falsely claimed that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
"This body rushed into a war" that had massive consequences, said Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who has pushed for years to repeal the powers.
While his limitless optimism for repealing war authorizations has often seemed out of step with its prospects for success, this year there is reason to believe things might be different. For the first time in two decades, the House and the Senate are pursuing identical legislation, and backers have assembled what they call a "trans-partisan" coalition comprising majorities in both chambers to back them.
"We have the momentum," said Rep Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chair of the House Rules Committee. "People are clearly breaking our way."
Cole is a chief Republican sponsor of this year's Iraq-focused effort, alongside Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Abigail Spanberger, D-Va.; and Chip Roy, R-Texas.
"Look, if you've got Chip Roy and I both co-sponsoring the same bill, then surely you've got the whole spectrum of the Republican Party," Cole added.
Cole, an old-guard conservative, and Roy, a firebrand member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, represent factions of the party that have clashed over everything from funding the war in Ukraine to selecting Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California as their leader. But both have a track record of supporting efforts to repeal the Iraq-focused authorizations for the use of military force, known as AUMFs.
Senators voted 66-30 to repeal the 2002 measure and also the 1991 authorization that sanctioned the U.S.-led Gulf War. If passed by the House, the repeal would not be expected to affect any current military deployments. But lawmakers in both parties are increasingly seeking to claw back congressional powers they have given the White House over U.S. military strikes and deployments, and some lawmakers who voted for the Iraq War two decades ago now say that was a mistake.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., noted it would be the first time in more than 50 years that Congress would repeal a war powers vote, since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that authorized military force in Vietnam was repealed in the early 1970s.
"Americans want to see an end to endless Middle East wars," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, adding that passing the repeal "is a necessary step to putting these bitter conflicts squarely behind us."
Supporters, including 18 Republican senators, say the repeal is crucial to prevent future abuses and to reinforce that Iraq is now a strategic partner of the United States. Opponents say the repeal could project weakness as the U.S. still faces conflict in the Middle East.
"Our terrorist enemies aren't sunsetting their war against us," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is at home recovering from a fall earlier this month and missed the vote. "When we deploy our servicemembers in harm's way, we need to supply them with all the support and legal authorities that we can."
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a combat veteran who lost both legs when her Black Hawk helicopter was hit by small-arms fire in the Iraq War, applauded the bill's passage Wednesday.
"If we choose to send our finest into battle, then we need to debate and vote to do so based on current conditions," Duckworth said in a statement. "I'm proud that today the Senate finally voted to repeal these decades-old AUMFs so we can start honoring our troops in the way they deserve, and I hope the House will move quickly to get this to President Biden's desk."
The repeal's future is less certain in the House, where 49 Republicans joined with Democrats in supporting a similar bill two years ago. McCarthy has suggested he is open to supporting a repeal even though he previously opposed it, but Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has indicated he would like to instead replace it with something else. But it is unclear what that would be.
"I'm still waiting to hear back from leadership on if we can go forward with a replacement, and if not, I'm sure it probably has the votes to pass," McCaul said of the repeal.
McCaul's admission shows a major shift in how attitudes toward war authorizations have changed since Congress passed the 2001 and 2002 measures, with most of the change happening in the past couple years.
Kaine and Todd Young, R-Ind., who led the effort together, have said they believe a strong bipartisan vote sends a powerful message to Americans who believe their voices should be heard on matters of war and peace.
"When I picked this up, there was not a '91 and '02 repeal effort underway," Young said in an interview, recalling how he and Kaine had decided to table the "more challenging" task of rewriting the 2001 resolution until they could soften the ground by dealing with the Iraq-related measures. "This is what made sense, to try and earn some trust back from the American people."
In floor remarks Wednesday, Kaine noted that nearly 4,500 Americans had lost their lives in Iraq, while more than 31,000 U.S. troops were wounded. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed in the war, he added.
"I rise thinking about all of them as we come close to a vote to declare that these wars are over," Kaine said.
Young has said the effort to repeal the authorizations transcends party politics, political philosophies or geography. The anniversary is a time to honor the 1.5 million Americans who served during the Iraq War, as well as a time for "reflection on where war powers rest" in the United States, Kaine and Young wrote in a joint op-ed for Fox News published this month.
"Those troops we honor this month may be surprised to know the legal authorization to wage war against Iraq is still on the books today, even though it serves no operational purpose and Iraq is now a strategic partner," they wrote.
To give a sense of how outdated these authorizations are, Kaine and Young pointed out that only three of the 100 members of the current Senate were in office when the Gulf War was authorized in 1991. Only a handful of members of the current Congress were in office when Operation Iraqi Freedom was authorized in 2002.
"This is an important moment for the Senate and our nation," Young said in a statement Wednesday. "Passage of this bill with strong bipartisan support takes us a step closer to restoring the proper role of Congress in authorizing military force and affirmatively stating when conflicts are over."
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, but the two war powers resolutions have otherwise rarely been used as the basis for any presidential action. About 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and assist and advise local forces.
A separate 2001 authorization for the global war on terror would remain in place under the bill, which President Joe Biden has said he will support.
The October 2002 votes to give Bush broad authority for the Iraq invasion were 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.
The Bush administration had drummed up support among members of Congress and the American public for invading Iraq by promoting what turned out to be false intelligence alleging Saddam had 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.
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 for years.
Some GOP senators opposing the repeal, including McConnell, have raised concerns about recent attacks against U.S. troops in Syria. A drone strike last week killed an American contractor and wounded five troops and another contractor, then a rocket attack wounded another service member. Iranian-backed militants are believed responsible for the attacks.
Republican lawmakers accused the Biden administration, which has signaled its support for repealing the Iraq War authorizations, of trying to cover up the episode for several hours to deprive them of potential amendment votes on the floor.
"That is absolutely not true," Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., during a hearing Tuesday, after the senator leveled the charge.
Biden and his administration have argued that the repeal would not affect any response to Iran. Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said at a Senate hearing last week that American troops are authorized to protect themselves and respond to attacks, including under Article 2 of the Constitution, which gives the president the authority to protect troops.
Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said just ahead of the vote that the repeal "in no way diminishes" the U.S. ability to deter Iranian aggression.
"This is not about Iran," Menendez said. "This is about Iraq. Saddam Hussein is gone."
Yet the road through the Republican-led House may depend chiefly on whether party leaders who have historically opposed repealing such measures are willing to relent -- and those leaders are presently under tremendous pressure to stop the bill in its tracks.
"I hope Kevin McCarthy will take up this cause," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has opposed the repeal effort.
The pushback from McConnell comes amid a growing rift in the Republican Party on the U.S. role in the Middle East, with some echoing Trump's "America First" message to argue against military intervention abroad. Other Republicans are concerned Congress is giving too much leeway to the president in matters of war.
"It's time we take back our constitutional authority to declare war," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., after voting for the repeal. Cramer said every authorization on the books should relate to current threats.
Young said that "a lot of lessons have been learned over the last 20 years."
He said supporting the legislation "want to ensure that the American people can hold us accountable, rather than delegating those important authorities to an executive branch and then lamenting the unwitting wisdom of the executive branch if things don't go well."
Information for this article was contributed by Mary Clare Jalonick and Lolita C. Baldor of The Associated Press, Amy B Wang and Liz Goodwin of The Washington Post and Karoun Demirjian of The New York Times.