The Biden administration encouraged lawmakers to finally repeal an authorisation for military action in Iraq crafted when Saddam Hussein was still alive, rejecting Republican arguments it would further signal to Iran that the US is retreating from the Middle East.
Debate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on ending Congress's 2002 resolution for military force against Iraq comes as part of a larger discussion by some lawmakers on axing or replacing decades-old congressional authorisations for military force.
Tuesday's debate also is part of a growing tug-of-war between the Biden administration and lawmakers who say Joe Biden is only the latest US president to flout congressional authority with military strikes and deployments in Somalia, Syria, Iraq and other hotspots.
Appearing before the panel, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke up for one apparent area of agreement between the White House and Democratic lawmakers in the debate: ending Congress's standing 2002 authorisation for US troops to strike in Iraq. US forces — acting on later disproven US claims that Saddam was sitting on weapons of mass destruction — invaded Iraq in 2003. They captured the Iraqi leader months later and turned him over to a new Iraqi government, which hanged him in 2006.
The committee is due to vote on repealing the 2002 resolution and a 1991 measure authorising the US-led Gulf War to roll back Saddam in an invasion of Kuwait. Biden voted for the resolution in 2002, later calling it a mistake, and against going to war in 1991 in his long career as a senator from Delaware.
Iraq today is a partner of the United States, not an enemy, Sherman told lawmakers. She argued that repealing the 2002 resolution would demonstrate the changed relationship and be a setback to rival Iran, which wants neighbouring Iraq firmly in its sphere of influence.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had pushed the Biden administration when he visited Washington last month to remove some of the last vestiges of the US invasion, which effectively ended in 2011.
Several committee Republicans argued repealing the decades-old authorisations would send the wrong message to Iran.
That's especially so as the Biden administration ends the US military role in Afghanistan, and — at the request of the Iraqi government — formally rebrands any remaining combat mission in Iraq to one focused on training, advising and intelligence-sharing.
"Why take the chance that this is misinterpreted in the Middle East?" Utah Senator Mitt Romney asked Sherman on repealing the 2002 military authorisation.
"This has extraordinary ability to be misconstrued as America's pulling away," Romney added. "The risk is much greater than the benefit."
The Biden administration has cited other legal authority, including Biden's constitutional war powers as commander in chief, in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, and Pentagon strikes on the al Shabab Islamic insurgent group in Somalia, without seeking congressional approval for each strike.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have efforts under way that would repeal and replace some standing authorisations of military force, including a 2001 authorisation regarding Afghanistan, al-Qaida and the Taliban still cited in other US counter-terror strikes.
Other legislation introduced by Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, would shift substantially more power on foreign policy and national security to Congress from the executive branch.
As someone who voted for the 2001 action on Afghanistan after the 9/11 strikes, "I can safely say we never could have imagined it being used as a justification for airstrikes in Somalia ... or against groups that did not even exist at the time", said Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the committee. He said it was time for an "honest conversation" on the current balance of presidential and congressional authority for deciding on military action. Biden also voted for the Afghanistan resolution, which passed with no opposition in the Senate.