A House subcommittee shocked many in late June when it overwhelmingly supported a progressive lawmaker's amendment to repeal the 2001 war authorization that the US has used as the legal basis for wars against a broadening set of terrorist groups in multiple countries since 9/11.
The top Republican on the subcommittee initially opposed the proposal from Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, which would have given Congress just eight months to debate and pass a new authorization to continue the war on terror. But then something unusual happened — one-by-one, other Republicans stood to take Lee's side. The House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee passed the amendment nearly unanimously.
But on Tuesday, Republicans quietly killed the bipartisan effort.
Late Tuesday night, Lee blamed House Speaker Paul Ryan, who never supported the amendment. A senior GOP aide confirmed on Wednesday morning that Republicans had swapped out the Lee amendment for one from Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole that would not repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. It instead asks the Trump administration for an update on the AUMF's use in the fight against ISIS and other conflicts abroad.
Lee tweeted just before midnight that Ryan had "stripped" her amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF "in the dead of night."
Lee followed up by saying the Speaker "should be ashamed of himself for forcing Republicans to strip out" the amendment.
However, a spokesperson for the Rules committee, which swapped the amendments, said the new bill was released long before midnight. "The updated bill text was posted at 7:05 PM, so the sun wasn’t even down yet," the spokesperson said.
Ryan's office, which has opposed Lee's amendment since it passed in June, argued on Wednesday that repealing the 2001 AUMF with no new authorization in place "was an irresponsible measure that would have would have left service members in the field without an authorization to defeat al-Qaeda and ISIS and could have led to the release of the prisoners at Guantanamo.
"There is a way to have this debate but an amendment that endangers our national security is not it," spokesperson AshLee Strong said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
Lee and the Republicans who originally supported her amendment, including two military veterans, argued at the time that it was important to show service members fighting overseas that Congress was willing to have a debate about the scope of the US battle against terrorism.
Republicans used a procedural tool on Tuesday to strip the amendment without the need for a vote. "Sadly, given the bipartisan consensus on repealing the AUMF, Republican leadership chose to take this underhanded step to avoid a bipartisan debate and vote," Lee's office said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
A senior GOP aide, speaking on background, told BuzzFeed News that the Lee amendment would have run into procedural problems anyway because it was attached to a spending bill that's designed to set funding levels for the government, not policy. So Republicans decided to replace the Lee amendment with Cole's watered-down measure, which is also contained in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that the House approved last week.
The amendment from Cole — one of the Republicans who supported Lee in the Defense Appropriations subcommittee — is now contained in both the NDAA and the defense appropriations bill. It instructs President Trump to provide Congress "a report on the United States strategy to defeat Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and their associated forces and co-belligerents" within 30 days of the bill's enactment.
That report, the proposed legislation says, should also provide an "analysis of the adequacy of the existing legal framework to accomplish the strategy ... particularly with respect to the Authorization for Use of Military Force."
Two of the Republicans who supported Lee's amendment in the subcommittee, Reps. Scott Taylor and Chris Stewart — both military veterans — said on Wednesday they weren't bothered by leadership's decision to remove the measure, and welcomed the opportunity to get more information from the Trump administration about its military strategy and views on AUMF.
"I don't care and I expected it would be [removed]," said Stewart, an Air Force veteran from Utah, "and I felt like procedurally it probably wasn't the right vehicle." He said he supported the Lee amendment to encourage the rest of Congress to have the debate.
"I don't care much what committee it goes through, frankly. I just want to have the conversation," Stewart said.
Taylor, a former Navy SEAL from Virginia, echoed Stewart. "I think there's legitimacy to the argument that that wasn't the place for it," Taylor said. "I get that. But again ... no matter what the place is — I don't care what the damn place is, find it, you know what I mean? We should have that debate."
But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement on Wednesday afternoon accusing the Republican Congress of "subverting the legislative process and abdicating its solemn constitutional responsibility to debate and authorize the Trump Administration’s use of force."
Lee's amendment would have had to overcome many hurdles to become law, including agreement from the full House, the Senate, and a signature from the president. Its passage in June, however, signaled mounting frustration among Democrats and Republicans alike about the US's reliance on a broad, 60-word war authorization to justify a battle against terrorism that has changed radically in the last 16 years.
Cole said at a Rules Committee hearing last week that he understood criticisms from some of his Republican colleagues that passing a repeal of the war authorization without a replacement would be too risky. But, he countered, Congress had delayed the issue for too long, and passing the Lee amendment was intended to be a “flare" to let leadership know that members want a debate. Cole also said last week that he was working with leadership to find a way forward that they would find more palatable.
Given the opposition, Lee knew Ryan might remove the amendment. "I spoke to Barbara Lee. Barbara’s very afraid that it’s going to disappear," Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter said at the Rules committee hearing last week on the defense spending authorization bill.
"She’s pretty sure that it will,” Slaughter said. "That would really be a shame.”
Lee also met with Ryan that day, and said that he did not commit to preserving her amendment.
While Lee's amendment appears to be dead for now, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — which, along with its House counterpart, is the body typically responsible for updating war authorizations — is debating passing a new AUMF. The committee held a public hearing on the issue on June 20, and expects a briefing from the Trump administration in the weeks ahead.