McCarthy’s newest challenge: Keeping the House GOP peace on war powers

Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

ORLANDO, Fla. — Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his leadership team are scrambling to defuse intra-party tension over Congress' war powers without breaking the House GOP's fragile peace.

As the Senate churns toward a bipartisan vote to repeal a pair of decades-old war authorizations, McCarthy has pledged to find a compromise that can pass on his side of the Capitol. But landing an agreement without exposing awkward internal divides may prove near-impossible.

That’s because war powers are the rare topic that unite archconservatives with virtually every House Democrat in favor of repeal — while the majority of House Republicans, including many McCarthy allies, have opposed the idea of nixing the roughly 20-year Iraq War authorization. So the speaker has his work cut out for him in trying to please both camps with a solution that works on the floor.

“I’m going to try to make the argument that it should be repealed,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of McCarthy’s chief antagonists in the January speakership race, said in a brief interview about the upcoming debate.


McCarthy gave a symbolic boost to conservatives like Gaetz this week by saying that he’s willing to repeal the 2002 war powers measure, known as an authorization for the use of military force. Yet that comment came with a big caveat: The California Republican doesn’t plan to fast-track a war powers bill to the floor any time soon.

“Just because a bill passes in the Senate,” McCarthy told reporters on Tuesday, “doesn’t mean it comes directly to the floor.”

Such a delay may stall, but wouldn’t alleviate, a major headache for McCarthy's team. Conservatives and Democrats, if they align on repealing both the 2002 and 1991 military force authorizations, have a coalition big enough to overpower Republican strategy on the floor.

McCarthy is leaning on some of his biggest national security hawks to craft a workable alternate war powers plan, including Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a longtime skeptic of repealing the 2002 Iraq War authorization. And as he gears up to lobby his libertarian-leaning colleagues, McCaul is reviving an infamous GOP phrase from its anti-Obamacare days: Repeal and replace.

“I would prefer if we’re going to repeal it, to replace it," McCaul said. "We’re having discussions with the speaker’s office on that, just to update it."

That decision won’t be in McCarthy’s hands forever. The House Armed Services Committee, which takes the lead on a massive defense policy bill every year, likely has a slim majority of votes to nix the 2002 war powers authorization. And McCarthy’s earlier vows to allow "open season" on amendments to big spending bills would allow Republicans — or Democrats — on either side of the war powers debate to force their own floor votes on the matter.

Should a standalone war powers repeal bill come up, only a handful of Republicans would need to vote in favor of repeal in order for it to pass, since virtually every Democrat is on board. (If that happens, however, it would break a longtime House Republican principle that states no bill should pass without a “majority of the majority” on board.)

Then there’s the likely long-shot Plan B to force floor debate on war powers: a so-called "discharge petition," which allows rank-and-file members to force a bill past leadership and to a vote by collecting signatures from a majority of House members. McCarthy allies, though, are skeptical that a discharge petition would work.

But before all that, the Senate needs to act. The upper chamber is set to officially nullify the president’s blank-check powers in Iraq as soon as this week, marking nearly 20 years to the day since the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. The same vote would also formally end U.S. war powers related to the 1991 Gulf War and turn the spotlight across the Capitol.

"I am encouraged that in the House members from both sides of the aisle seem to be open to taking action once the Senate passes this resolution,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday. “And there are members of the Senate Republican leadership who seem very strongly for the bill. That’s a very good sign."

Nineteen Republican senators backed an initial procedural vote to repeal the war authorizations last week, an early sign of big bipartisan backing. Schumer on Tuesday promised a “reasonable amendment process” but said “AUMF repeal in the Senate is now a matter of when, not a matter of if.”

Some House Republicans said they couldn’t predict how their conference would treat the bill, given the uncertain status of amendments. And McCarthy is clearly trying to hit the brakes on a potential floor confrontation, saying he wants to “front load” the details of a potential deal through committee rather than in a free-for-all on the floor.

That’s where McCaul comes in. He's currently pitching a repeal of the 2002 law packaged with a simultaneous replacement in the form of a new military authorization for terrorist groups that are not country-specific as well as Shiite militias inside of Iraq. (He argues a broader 2001 “war on terror” authorization doesn’t do that, though not every lawmaker agrees with him. And Democrats are also skeptical of the Texas Republican over concerns he’ll try to drag the 2001 authorization into any war powers discussion, setting a much higher bar to a deal.)

But McCaul is already trying to think of how to win over potential GOP detractors who might be worried about green-lighting another decades-long war power, planning to add a built-in expiration date to whatever might replace the 2002 law.

“I would really like to start working toward replacement, because I think people are just getting tired of these old authorizations. And I would also put a five-year sunset in these things, so that Congress is forced to take it back up,” he said.

Though McCaul is already privately suggesting his plan to McCarthy, he said its fate is in “leadership’s hands right now.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), asked about how to bring up a bill without losing a majority of GOP members, signaled that Republicans are still squarely in the discussion phase about “this question of if it is time to revise or revisit" the war powers measures. He did not address the potential timing of House action.

"The threats of terrorism are still real, but the battlefields have changed,” Scalise said in an interview, adding that "all the committees of jurisdiction are starting to have that conversation.”

At least one of McCarthy’s close allies has been vocally pressing for repeal — and senses that the time could be ripe to finally unite Congress and the White House on the issue. President Joe Biden said recently that he would sign a repeal of the 2002 war powers.

“It sounds like opposition is softening, and certainly McCarthy seems more open to it,” said House Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of the leading sponsors of a 2002 war powers repeal.

Cole added there could be additional steps, such as attaching amendments to the Senate version and going to conference — a much longer process. Still, he sounded upbeat: “I’m just glad to see that opinion is beginning to coalesce around getting this done.”

Olivia Beavers, Anthony Adragna and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report. Ferris reported from Washington.