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U.S. Senate is set to repeal the war authorization for the 2003 Iraq war

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Twenty years after the Iraq War began, the Senate is on track to vote this week to repeal the authorization that justified the 2003 invasion. Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin argued in favor of the repeal on the Senate floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: Let me be clear. Nothing we're doing here prevents an American president from acting in self-defense or in the face of imminent threats to our American nation.

MARTIN: Supporters say repealing the authorization will reassert the role of Congress in deciding when to start and end wars. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis has been covering the debate, and she's here with us now to tell us more. Good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So U.S combat operations ended in Iraq in 2011, and yet it's been more than a decade and - before Congress has decided to take this step. What took so long?

DAVIS: Well, there really has been bipartisan support for this on Capitol Hill for years. In the Senate, it's been led by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana. And what Kaine said recently is there was really disinterest from - during the Obama administration and outright opposition from the Trump administration. But President Biden says he'll - he supports it, and he'll sign it if it reaches his desk. So there's a supermajority of support in the Senate. It's basically just taken this long for the political stars to align in its favor. The legislation also repeals the 1991 war authorization that justified the first Gulf War under former President George H.W. Bush.

Michel, these are largely symbolic votes, but supporters of the action say it really is about Congress reasserting this war power authority, which structurally, over decades, has sort of crept towards the executive branch, particularly after the September 11, 2001, attack.

MARTIN: And, you know - and about that - I mean, after the 2001 attack, Congress passed another war authorization essentially to hunt down terrorists around the world. That's still on the books. And it's been used by four presidents now to conduct counterterrorism operations. Has Congress shown any interest in addressing that longstanding authority?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, in the Senate debate, they - it was brought up and it was rejected. Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky is a Republican. He offered an amendment that would have sunset that 2001 AUMF in six months. That would give Congress time to sort of revise it or rewrite it. That was overwhelmingly rejected. Just nine senators voted in favor of doing that. Republican Utah Senator Mike Lee offered another amendment that would require every AUMF to be reauthorized every two years at the start of every new Congress. Likewise rejected, only - like, handful of senators supported; 76 voted against that. What I think that says is there's actually very little interest in Congress in reining in not just the 2001 AUMF, but anything that would, you know, structurally make real-time decisions back in the hands of Congress. They're much more comfortable with these symbolic votes.

MARTIN: I'm wondering whether this Senate debate has demonstrated any reflection or regret about the impact that the Iraq war had on the country.

DAVIS: You know, the tone of it has largely been very forward-looking, sort of almost optimistic. Kaine and others now acknowledge - say Iraq is a strategic partner in the region, that they're not an adversary anymore. But Dick Durbin of Illinois, he was one of 22 Democrats who voted against it in 2002. And he spoke to those costs yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DURBIN: No nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction were ever found. We were never greeted as liberators. Iraqi oil didn't pay for the damage, the $2 trillion cost of the war. American taxpayers paid for it. More than 4,500 U.S. service members died in the conflict in Iraq.

DAVIS: Michel, dozens of Republicans are expected to vote against the repeal today. Their opposition is less about the AUMF. They say it just sends the wrong message to the Middle East that it would seem that the U.S. is now disengaging from the region.

MARTIN: That is NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, thank you so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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