An effort by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to sunset the broad legislation authorizing post-9/11 military operations failed on Wednesday.
Paul’s bid, an amendment to the annual defense policy bill, was killed 61-36, in a motion brought to the Senate floor by Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Thirty-three Democrats and two Republicans–Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dean Heller (R-Nevada)–joined with Paul, in a bid to keep his amendment alive. Thirteen Democrats voted for the Corker motion at the urging of Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the leading Dem on the Armed Services Committee.
Wednesday’s vote was the second recent congressional action on a proposal to repeal the law that launched the War on Terror–the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
In June, the House Appropriations Committee marked up a repeal introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif)–the only lawmaker to originally vote against the now-controversial legislation. Her amendment was stripped from the legislation eventually brought to the House floor by Republican leaders.
“Let’s let these expire,” Paul said Wednesday, referencing his sunset proposal. “And over the next six months, let’s have a debate over whether we should be at war and where.”
Critics of the Paul amendment—mostly his fellow Republicans—decried the procedure as reckless, demonstrating weakness to friend and foe alike.
“I cannot stand by silently as this body considers taking any action that would put our currently-deployed servicemembers at risk,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
McCain did note that he supports AUMF-refining legislation considered under “regular order”–through committees of jurisdiction. Paul dismissed that scenario as unlikely.
“Who thinks Congress is actually gonna do their job without being forced to do their jobs?” Paul asked, accusing his colleagues of abdicating Constitutional responsibilities. He said that Congress has little problem passing war authorization when its feet are held to the fire—after Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, for example.
The 2001 AUMF has been invoked to justify military operations in fourteen different countries, including ongoing incursions in Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a backer of the Paul amendment, noted on Wednesday that the Trump administration cited the legislation when bombing the Syrian government in April. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said that the current administration isn’t seeking revised authorities—unlike the Obama administration—specifically because it grants him a “blank check.”
“We’re at war in Yemen,” Paul said, listing US attacks on another country justified by the 2001 AUMF.
“Seventeen million people live on the edge of starvation because of the Saudi blockade and bombing campaign,” he added. “We are aiding and abetting that, yet there’s been no vote in Congress.”
In his floor speech before the vote, Paul also questioned wisdom of ongoing operations in Afghanistan and the wisdom of a War on Terror.
“If you’re going to say that we’re going to fight until the end of time—that we’re going to have a perpetual war, until the end of time, and we’re going to kill every radical Islamist in the world—it’s an impossibility,” he said.
Paul’s main foil, John McCain, did, however, back the idea of ongoing asymmetrical warfare, in perpetuity.
“It’s important to acknowledge why our fight against terrorism is necessary,” McCain said, referencing Monday’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
He made the remarks Wednesday despite having blasted the false optimism of those who executed the Vietnam War, at a Tuesday night Kennedy Center preview of Ken Burns’ latest documentary on the conflict.
“By telling the American people one thing, which was not true, about the progress in the war and the body counts, it caused a wave of pessimism to go across this country,” the Vietnam veteran said.