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How Iraq war powers repeal turned into an unlikely bipartisan win

It took four years of relentless campaigning for Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) to taste the 66-30 victory they scored Wednesday.

Four years after they first linked arms — forging an unlikely alliance to claw back war powers in Iraq — Democrats’ ex-vice presidential nominee and Republicans’ former Senate campaigns chief are closing in on victory.

It was hardly a given that Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) would finally notch the votes and time they needed for the Senate to formally repeal Congress’ 1991 and 2002 authorizations for military action in Iraq. After all, Washington is still adjusting to divided government, and the majority of the Senate GOP leadership team continues to oppose repealing the war powers approval.

But senators in both parties credited Kaine and Young’s relentless, member-by-member lobbying push as critical to the 66-30 repeal vote on Wednesday. The slow start to Senate legislating under a divided Congress, as well as a war-weary U.S. public, also helped pave the way for a repeal vote that persuaded Republican supporters across the party’s ideological spectrum to break from party leaders.

“My preference when dealing with an issue like this — which doesn’t strike me as particularly ideological — is to address members on a one-on-one basis and figure out what anxieties or concerns they might have,” Young said in a joint interview conducted with Kaine.

Kaine said he’s brought the topic up regularly in Democratic caucus meetings for a decade now, describing himself as a “Johnny one-note” on an issue he first took notice of in 2002 while serving as lieutenant governor of Virginia.

“Congress needs to own these responsibilities. Having a good bipartisan colleague on this just makes the difference,” Kaine said.

Since introducing their first joint war powers repeal bill in 2019, Kaine and Young have taken different tacks with their respective parties on the matter. Kaine said that his challenge hasn’t been winning support from fellow Democrats so much as grabbing the focus of the caucus amid a host of competing national security issues.

“It’s been a long crusade of Sen. Kaine’s,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who recalled his colleague “standing up in our caucus and bringing it up every couple of months.”

On Young’s side of the aisle, pro-repeal Republicans said the passage of time and the growing opposition to prolonged war within their party’s base made it easier to sell axing the authorizations. In addition, only a handful of senators who initially voted for war in Iraq remain in the chamber.

“Each decade we get beyond the end of the war, I think most people are finally figuring out the war’s over,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), describing Young as “very, very good” at rounding up GOP support for the effort.

Other Republican allies said Young’s experience as a former Marine lent credibility to his arguments for repealing the war powers.

“When it comes from Todd, who’s spent years there as an officer, I think it just means a little bit even more. It’s not like he’s a dove,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), a repeal backer.

Wednesday’s repeal vote won over the entire Senate Democratic majority, in addition to 18 Republicans who ranged from centrist Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to non-interventionist conservative Paul.

Should the Senate war powers repeal pass the House, the Biden administration has indicated the president would support it. But getting it to Biden’s desk requires House passage — and that won’t be easy. Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) wants to repeal and replace both the 2002 military force authorization and a broad one passed in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, the latter of which still serves as the basis for counterterrorism activities around the world.

McCaul said this week he wants a “counterterrorism-focused AUMF without geographical boundaries” that would end after five years “so it’s not forever war stuff.”

But McCaul also has made clear that the ultimate decision rests with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and the California Republican is already facing trouble navigating an issue that’s split his conference.

And the strategy Young employed to win over Senate Republicans might not work in the House: The Hoosier said he tailored his arguments depending on the member as he built a sufficient Republican bloc to deliver repeal.

Democrats took notice — especially Young’s colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee, which remains a rare occasionally bipartisan bastion on a bitterly divided Hill. Kaine described the Hoosier as “a natural partner,” while Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said “he’s one of the folks who acts as a glue in the Senate.”

On his own side of the aisle, Young downplayed the idea that his work on war powers repeal created awkwardness with Senate GOP leaders, all of whom except National Republican Senatorial Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) ultimately opposed the legislation. (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, still away from the chamber recuperating after a concussion, condemned the repeal vote on Tuesday.)

“In this job, we do what we believe is right and in the best interest of our constituents and the country,” said Young, who easily won a second term last fall.

Not every senior Senate Republican, however, took the approach of Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) — who observed of the repeal vote that “sometimes you just have to accept reality.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, spoke for GOP colleagues who fear the repeal of the war powers may only embolden U.S. enemies abroad.

“I’m also worried about how our adversaries will read this,” said Rubio, who opposed repeal. “Will this be used against us?”

Meanwhile, many of Kaine and Young’s colleagues might welcome them rejoining hands to go further still by revamping or even outright repealing the 2001 war powers authorization that McCaul is eyeing, which teed up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The duo said in this week’s interview that they’re open to such discussions, but acknowledge that needle will be a difficult one to thread.

“It’ll take some heavy lifting to get there,” Kaine said, suggesting that Wednesday’s vote might create “a little bit of momentum toward exploring how to make sure we have the right authorities.”

Young said he’d want to ensure any revisions to the 2001 war powers measure clarify there will be no gap in existing legal authorities to conduct necessary operations overseas, which he said many members view as a point of vulnerability.

For the moment, pro-repeal senators appear openly grateful to complete work on a substantive bill after the Democratic majority considered more than 10 GOP amendments. As Murphy put it, “people have been hungry for some meaty, bipartisan bills.”

“The country is war-weary and there’s an instinct, which is the correct one, that we can’t be at war forever,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “And there is a beautiful left-right coalition that understands that.”

Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) wasn’t alone in openly praising the architects of that coalition.

“Give Tim Kaine and Sen. Young credit,” he said.