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Bipartisan senators unveil bill to bolster Congress’ war powers

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Washington — A bipartisan trio of senators have unveiled legislation to bolster Congress’ role in foreign policy, seeking to correct the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches after decades of deferring to the president on national security matters.

The bill by Senators Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, and Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, would require the president to consult with congressional leaders and obtain congressional authorization before exercising certain national security powers.

If a president acts without such authorization, there will be an automatic funding cutoff for the operation after a set number of days under the proposal by the trio of senators.

Murphy lamented in a statement that the House and Senate have over time “acquiesced to the growing, often unchecked power of the executive to determine the outline of America’s footprint in the world.”

“Before it’s too late, Congress needs to reclaim its rightful role as co-equal branch on matters of war and national security,” he said.

Called the National Security Powers Act, Lee said the proposal will ensure Congress is no longer ignored in areas where the House and Senate are granted broad powers under the Constitution.

“Presidents of both parties have usurped Congress’s prerogative to determine if, when, and how we go to war,” he said in a statement. “Now America’s global standing, treasure, and brave servicemembers are being lost in conflicts the people’s legislators never debated.”

The bill seeks to reclaim Congress’ power over three areas: war powers, arms exports and national emergencies. In addition to requiring the president to obtain congressional approval before exercising these powers, each authorization must meet specific requirements, including an automatic end date. 

In the area of war powers, the measure requires the president to terminate hostilities that don’t receive congressional approval after 20 days and details the requirements for future authorizations for use of military force. It also automatically repeals existing authorizations for use of military force.

The legislation also requires Congress to authorize foreign military sales and commercial sales of weapons above a specified monetary amount.

If approved by the House and Senate and signed into law, the measure would rein in the president’s authority to grant national emergencies, which when declared give the commander-in-chief a range of emergency powers. The bill would require national emergencies to be renewed by Congress after one year, with an automatic five-year limit on states of emergency. It also requires the House and Senate to approve an emergency declaration and outline specific emergency powers within 30 days.

“Article I of the Constitution clearly states that it is Congress, not the president, which has the power to declare war. The Framers gave that power to Congress, the branch most accountable to the people, but over many years Congress has allowed its oversight authority to wane and executive power to expand,” Sanders said, adding the legislation is an “important step toward reasserting that constitutional power.”

Democratic Congressman James McGovern of Massachusetts is expected to introduce companion legislation in the House in the coming weeks.

Congress has worked to reassert its power over national security matters, with the House voting last month to roll back the 2002 authorization for use of military force in Iraq. The bill, which has the backing of the White House, passed the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate this year.

The House and Senate also approved in 2019 a bill to end U.S military assistance in the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen, though former President Trump vetoed the measure.



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