Uphill: Momentum on War Powers

Plus: The Democratic push to make D.C. the 51st state.

Good morning. The House is out but members are holding committee hearings this week. The Senate is in and voting on Biden’s executive branch nominees.

What we’re watching this morning: The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on gun violence prevention at 10 a.m. today, after two awful mass shootings over the past week in Atlanta and Boulder have left 18 dead. Lawmakers will contend with those recent events, as well as alarming numbers indicating that gun violence in the United States went up significantly over the past year. The House recently passed two bills to expand background checks for firearm sales and to lengthen the review period for background checks. (The Dispatch’s Alec Dent had a good fact check about claims Republicans have made about the bills yesterday. You can read it here.)

Lawmakers Push AUMF Repeals

Members of Congress from both parties are coalescing around an effort to repeal several outdated authorizations for the use of military force—an approach that could sidestep political landmines as lawmakers consider how best to replace current authorities.

A Senate bill introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine and Todd Young earlier this month would scrap the 1991 Gulf War authorization and the 2002 AUMF that greenlit the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Kaine told The Dispatch last week that he has had conversations with the Biden administration about the bill, “just kind of setting the table for it.” He said it could get a vote in the Senate soon. 

Lawmakers widely view the 2002 authorization, which does not underpin current anti-terror operations like the 2001 AUMF does, as a power that is ripe for abuse. The House included a repeal of the 2002 measure in its fiscal year 2020 annual defense authorization act, but it was stripped from the legislation after negotiations with the then-Republican Senate. Lawmakers in the House later voted again to repeal the authority after President Donald Trump cited it in part as justification for the strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani last January.

There are still some hurdles to final passage of the 2002 repeal—it would take 60 votes in the Senate under the chamber’s current rules—but the conversation is picking up more steam now that Democrats control Congress. Some hope Republicans who have previously opposed such attempts will be more open to reining in the executive’s war powers now that a Democrat is in the White House. 

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Members have long debated how to update the earlier 2001 authorization to address the current war on terror, but they have struggled to agree on the scope of the legislation and how to enact effective oversight of the executive branch. Repealing the 2002 AUMF and potentially the other old authorizations before addressing the 2001 AUMF directly could allow at least some movement on an issue that has long proven a quagmire on the Hill. 

Two powerful House committees will hold meetings on the subject more broadly this week. The House Rules Committee will hear from experts about the War Powers Resolution later this morning, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee will have a hearing this afternoon on reclaiming congressional war powers. Later this week, the Foreign Affairs Committee is also set to debate and vote on whether to send a standalone 2002 authorization repeal bill to the full House for consideration.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee, would repeal only the 2002 authorization. While her bill has far more Democratic cosponsors than Republicans, Lee has found some allies among new GOP members.

“That, to me, is just sort of the low-hanging fruit,” freshman Rep. Peter Meijer told The Dispatch of the 2002 authorization earlier this month. “Let’s get it done. Let’s not have these justifications kind of laying out there waiting for someone’s creative interpretation to do something far from the intent.”

Meijer and a bipartisan group of House members, including Reps. Mike Gallagher, Jared Golden, and Abigail Spanberger, introduced their own bill similar to Kaine’s last week. It would get rid of the 1991 and 2002 authorizations, as well as an open-ended 1957 authorization for force in the Middle East that was never directly invoked but remains in force today.

"Congress has abdicated its Article 1 authority for too long. By taking these outdated authorizations off the books, we can start to reclaim our constitutional war powers,” said Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican. “The 1957, 1991, and 2002 AUMFs are no longer relevant and their repeal would not impact ongoing operations. War powers are this institution’s most important constitutional responsibility, and it’s critical we take this small but significant step forward to reassert Congressional authority.”

Democrats Focus on D.C. Statehood

Now that Democrats have notched a win on their first legislative priority, a massive coronavirus aid package, members are pushing for a range of policies—many of which can’t pass the Senate while the filibuster remains intact. One of the first items on the list: D.C. statehood. My colleague Ryan Brown tuned into a House hearing about the subject yesterday to cover it for us here in Uphill:

Lawmakers have debated whether Washington, D.C., should be a state for decades, but momentum for making it a reality has never been as strong as it is now. On Monday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing on legislation that would carve out most of D.C. and make it a state.

In practice, the bill would establish a new state called “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth.” Excluded from the new state would be a small area of land that includes the White House, U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the National Mall, and a smattering of other federal buildings in between. This area, roughly two square miles, would remain the federal seat of power in the nation and would be known as the capital. The bill would also grant the new state—the rest of what is currently D.C.—two senators and one member of the House of Representatives. The 700,000 residents of D.C. currently have a non-voting member of the House, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who can participate in committee business, introduce bills, and speak on the floor but cannot vote on final passage of legislation.

Supporters of statehood for the district argue the lack of full representation in Congress for citizens who live within the bounds of D.C. is cause for allowing it to become a state. “Taxation without representation” is a common rallying cry among those who support the measure.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser testified before the committee Monday. “The simple fact is denying American citizens a vote in the body that taxes them goes against the founding principles of this great nation,” she said. “The disenfranchisement of Washingtonians is one of the remaining glaring civil rights and voting rights issues of our time.”

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Republicans are staunchly opposed to attempts at statehood, arguing it is unconstitutional and unnecessary. Some have made the case that the residential areas of the city could be ceded to Maryland instead. And with the partisan makeup of the proposed new state being overwhelmingly Democratic, Republicans on Monday were clearly concerned about what D.C. statehood would mean for the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. 

“D.C. statehood would mean a money grab from neighboring states and a power grab for the United States Senate. All done in an impractical and unconstitutional fashion,” Republican Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia said.  

Republicans have also maintained for decades that D.C. statehood would require a constitutional amendment, rather than being accomplished as legislation passed by Congress alone. If approved (which remains unlikely at this point), the statehood measure would almost certainly face legal challenges.

Democrats argue the legislation as written would avoid constitutional concerns because it would set smaller boundaries for the capital instead of eliminating it altogether. The bill also includes expedited procedures for consideration of a constitutional amendment to remove the capital’s three Electoral College votes. (If the small tract of land that would be the new capital retained the votes, experts have pointed out, the only voting residents would be the president and his or her family. Incumbents have an advantage at the polls, but wielding their own three Electoral College votes to cast? A bit much.) 

House Democrats passed legislation to make D.C. a state in June of last year, marking the first time either chamber of Congress has passed a bill granting D.C. statehood. The bill now has 215 cosponsors in the House, all Democratic. 

It is expected to pass the House again in the coming months. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said on a call with reporters Monday that the chamber will again bring it up for a vote. But Democrats would have to win over 10 Republican senators to reach the 60-vote threshold for passage of the bill in the Senate. That isn’t going to happen. Some progressives say the only way to advance the legislation is to change the Senate rules.

Even if Democrats were to end the legislative filibuster or reform it to make it more difficult for Republicans to block legislation, though, it could still prove a challenge to gather all the necessary votes to pass D.C. statehood in the current Senate. Democrats have only 50 members in the chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris acting as tiebreaker. Democrats would have to be completely unified to pass the statehood bill. Moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have not thrown their support behind the push, although Manchin said earlier this year that he would consider it. 

President Joe Biden has repeatedly touted his support for the effort. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters again last week that Biden backs the legislation. “He believes they deserve representation,” she said. “That’s why he supports D.C. statehood.”

On the Floor

The House is out this week. The Senate is in and will continue to vote on Biden’s executive branch nominees. Senators confirmed Boston Mayor Martin Walsh to lead the Department of Labor last night with a vote of 68-29. Shalanda Young is also expected to receive a vote on her nomination to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget this week.

Key Hearings

  • Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell will testify before the House Financial Services Committee Tuesday afternoon on the pandemic response. 

  • A Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine high prescription drug prices at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

  • State officials from Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin will appear before a House Homeland Security subcommittee on Wednesday morning for a hearing on state and local responses to domestic terrorism.

  • The Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on the chamber’s version of H.R. 1, the Democrats’ sweeping election legislation that recently passed the House.

  • Survivors of sexual assault in the military and subject matter experts will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. on sexual assault in the military.

  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will testify before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Thursday at 11 a.m. about the administration’s priorities for transportation infrastructure.

Fence Update

Capitol Police is in the process of removing the outer perimeter of fencing around the Capitol and nearby office buildings—opening up traffic to some roads that had been blocked off. There’s also more mobility for pedestrians, much to the appreciation of Mr. Skippy, who had very much missed taking walks around the Capitol grounds.

An inner fence will still remain closer to the Capitol building for an unknown amount of time (despite acting House Sergeant at Arms Timothy Blodgett’s acknowledgement last week that “there does not exist a known, credible threat against Congress or the Capitol Complex that warrants the temporary security fencing.”) Stacks of folded-up fencing could be seen around the Hill yesterday, like these I passed by the Supreme Court:

Of Note

Speedy House vs. slower Senate: Dems struggle to balance on Biden agenda

GOP Rep. Jody Hice won’t seek reelection in Georgia

White House prepares massive infrastructure bill with universal pre-K, free community college, climate measures

Rep. Tom Reed says he won’t run for reelection in 2022

After Capitol riot, Senate taps intelligence official to lead security