President Joe Biden’s decision to launch airstrikes targeting Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region injects new urgency into the congressional debate over whether Congress should put curbs on the Executive Branch’s war powers around the globe.
Top Democrats defended the Biden administration’s military action, saying the strikes carried out Sunday appeared to be justified and in response to a specific threat. But some Democrats also expressed concern that the strikes were more than just a one-off episode as militia groups continue to target US personnel and facilities using unmanned aerial vehicle attacks in Iraq – meaning Congress should be authorizing the US military action.
Rockets landed at a US military base in eastern Syria on Monday, one day after the US military action, according to a US defense official, who said it was “likely” the rockets were fired by Iranian-backed militias, the origin of the rockets has not been determined.
The airstrikes come after the House passed legislation earlier this month repealing the 2002 authorization for use of military force in Iraq. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is planning to take up similar legislation next month, and the Biden administration has said it supports the repeal, arguing that the 2002 authorization is no longer used for any military operations.
Indeed, the Biden administration did not cite any congressionally approved military force authorization in its legal justification for the airstrikes, saying that the military action was conducted under the President’s Article II authority in the Constitution to defend the country from imminent threats.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, said Sunday that he trusted the “national security instincts” of the Biden White House.
“My concern is that the pace of activity directed at U.S. forces and the repeated retaliatory strikes against Iranian proxy forces are starting to look like what would qualify as a pattern of hostilities under the War Powers Act,” Murphy said in a statement. “Both the Constitution and the War Powers Act require the president to come to Congress for a war declaration under these circumstances.”
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who has long pushed for more congressional oversight on military actions overseas, said Monday that the strikes appeared to fall under a “classic Article II self-defense.” But he added that if the conflict escalated, he agreed with Murphy it would require a larger congressional role and potential authorization.
Sunday’s airstrikes weren’t the first time the Biden administration has taken military action against Iranian-backed military groups. In February, the US struck a site in Syria used by two militia groups in response to rocket attacks on American forces in the region.
Those airstrikes sparked an initial flurry of activity in Congress among lawmakers who have tried in past years to curb the Executive Branch’s war powers, hopeful that Biden’s long Senate career would give them a partner in the White House instead of an opponent. In addition to the 2002 Iraq War authorization, Kaine and other lawmakers are looking to rewrite the broad 2001 authorization for use of military force that’s been used as legal justification for US military action around the world for nearly two decades.
Kaine, who has coauthored the Senate legislation to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization with Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, argued that the fact that it was not invoked is evidence that Congress should take it off the books.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a notice come over and the White House say, ‘We’re relying on the 2002 Iraq (authorization),’” Kaine said.
But Republican foreign policy hawks opposed to Congress repealing the 2002 authorization because it constrains the Executive Branch’s ability to respond to terrorist threats argued that the latest US military action shows the US is still involved in Iraq and should not voluntarily repeal the authority without a replacement.
“While I commend President Biden’s defensive strike on the proxies’ facilities in Syria and Iraq, I believe these actions are overdue and highlight the continued need for the 2002 AUMF, or — at a minimum — the need for a comprehensive replacement before a repeal can be considered, especially given that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are an ongoing threat to American troops,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden believed the airstrikes were “necessary, appropriate and a deliberate action,” while adding that the administration was confident in its legal authority under the President’s Article II powers.
Lawmakers on multiple committees said they expected to be briefed in more detail on the airstrikes, including the legal justification for them and the intelligence that led to the military action.
“Based on what I have learned so far, I believe these were an appropriate and reasonable use of force intended for defensive purposes,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who has requested a committee briefing from the Pentagon. “The Intelligence Committee will closely review the basis for this strike, including an assessment of whether this action will truly deter or prevent further attacks by these militias using UAVs and other means.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Sunday that Congress “looks forward to receiving and reviewing the formal notification of this operation under the War Powers Act and to receiving additional briefings from the administration.”
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who last week granted a request from Republicans to hear from the Biden administration on repealing the 2002 Iraq War authorization before voting to repeal it, said he expected administration officials would brief the committee both on the airstrikes as well as a broader discussion about the 2002 war authorization.
“I will be seeking more information from the administration in the coming days regarding what specifically predicated these strikes, any imminent threats they believed they were acting against, and more details on the legal authority the administration relied upon,” Menendez said.
CNN’s Manu Raju, Morgan Rimmer and Allie Malloy contributed to this report.