Floor Statements

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor introducing the War Powers Consultation Act of 2014 with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA):

“Mr. President: I am pleased to join my colleague, the junior Senator from Virginia, as we introduce today the War Powers Consultation Act of 2014.

“This legislation is the final product of the National War Powers Commission, a bipartisan effort co-led by former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher. The Commission was set up by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia to devise a modern and workable war powers consultation mechanism for the executive and legislative branches. It included some of our nation’s most distinguished and respected thinkers and practitioners of national security policy and law. In 2008, after more than a year of hard work the Commission released the final product – an actual legislative proposal to repeal and replace the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which no American President has ever accepted as constitutional.

“Like my colleague, I view our introduction of this legislation today as the start of an important congressional and national debate, not the final word in that debate. We want to pick up where the National War Powers Commission left off six years ago, and we do so fully understanding, and hopeful, that this legislation should be considered, and debated, and amended, and improved through regular order.

“My colleague from Virginia has done a great job explaining what the legislation would do and why it is so important. I would like to expand on why updating the War Powers Resolution is such a worthwhile endeavor for the Senate to consider right now.

“The Constitution gives the power to declare war to the Congress, but Congress has not formally declared war since June 1942, even though our nation has been involved in dozens of military actions of one scale or another since that time. There is reason for this: The nature of war is changing. It is increasingly unlikely that the combat operations that our nation will be involved in will resemble those of World War II, where the standing armies and navies of nation-states squared off against those of rival nation-states on clearly-defined fields of battle. Rather, the conflicts in which increasingly find ourselves, and for which we must prepare, will be murkier, harder to reconcile with the traditional notions of warfare. They may be more limited in their objectives, their scope and their duration. And they likely will not conclude with a formal surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.

“The challenge for all of us serving in the Congress is this: How do we reconcile the changing nature of war with Congress’s proper role in the declaration of war? This is not exactly a new question, but it is a profound one – for unless we in Congress are prepared to cede our constitutional authority over matters of war to the executive, we need a more workable arrangement for consultation and decision-making between the executive and legislative branches.

“We have seen several manifestations of this challenge in recent years. In 2011, President Obama committed U.S. military forces to combat operations in Libya to protect civilian populations from imminent slaughter by a brutal anti-American tyrant. I, for one, believe he was right to do so. But six months later, when our armed services were still involved in kinetic actions in Libya – not just supporting our NATO allies, but conducing air-to-ground operations and targeted strikes from armed unmanned aerial vehicles – the Administration claimed, as other Administrations would, that it had no obligations to Congress under the War Powers Resolution because our armed services were not involved in combat operations. That struck many members of Congress, including me, as fundamentally at odds with reality. And unfortunately, it pushed more members of Congress into opposition against the mission itself.

“More recently, we saw the opposite problem manifested with regard to Syria. Perhaps due to the backlash in Congress that the Administration’s handling of the Libya conflict engendered, President Obama decided to seek congressional authorization for limited airstrikes against the Assad regime after it slaughtered more than 1,400 of its own citizens with chemical weapons last August. An operation that likely would have lasted a few days, and thus been fully consistent with the President’s authority under the existing War Powers Resolution had he decided to act decisively and take limited military action, instead devolved into a stinging legislative repudiation of executive action. The tragic result was that the Assad regime was spared any meaningful consequences for its use of a weapon of mass destruction against innocent men, women, and children – and like Libya, the forces that want to turn America away from the world were not checked but empowered.

“Now, some may see the problem in these two instances as a failure of presidential leadership, and I would agree. But I also believe that the examples of Libya and Syria represent the broader problem we as a nation face: What is the proper war power authority of the executive and legislative branches when it comes to limited conflicts, which are increasingly the kinds of conflicts with which we are faced?

“It is essential for the Congress and the President to work together to define a new war powers consultative arrangement that both reflects the nature of conflict in the 21st century and is in line with our Constitution. Our nation does not have 535 Commanders-in-Chief. We have one – the President – and that role, as established by our Constitution, must be respected. Our nation is poorly served when Members of Congress try to micromanage the Commander-in-Chief in matters of war.

“At the same time, now more than ever, we need to create a broader and more durable national consensus on foreign policy and national security, especially when it comes to matters of war and armed conflict. We need to find ways to make internationalist policies more politically sustainable. After the September 11th attack, we embarked on an expansive foreign policy. Spending on defense and foreign assistance went up, and energy shifted to the executive. Now, things are changing. Americans want to pull back from the world. Our foreign assistance and defense budgets are declining. The desire to curb presidential power across the board is growing. And the political momentum is shifting toward the Congress.

“America has gone through this kind of political rebalancing before. And much of the time, we’ve gotten it wrong. That’s how we got isolationism and disarmament after World War I. That’s how we got a hollow Army after Vietnam. That’s how we weakened our national security after the Cold War, in the misplaced hope of cashing in on a peace dividend. We can’t afford to repeat these mistakes.

“A new War Powers Resolution, one that is recognized as both constitutional and workable in practice, can be an important contribution to this effort. It can more effectively invest the Congress in the critical decisions that impact our national security. It can help build a more durable consensus in favor of the kinds of policies we need to sustain our global leadership and protect our nation. In short, the legislation we are introducing today can restore a better balance to the way national security decision-making should work in a great democracy such as ours.

“Let me say again: Neither the Senator from Virginia nor I believe the legislation we are introducing today answers all of the monumental and difficult questions surrounding the issue of war powers. We believe this is a matter of transcendent importance to our nation, and we as the deliberative body of our government should debate this issue. And we look forward to that debate. This legislation should be seen as a way of starting that discussion, both here in the Congress and across our nation. We owe that to ourselves and our constituents, and most of all, we owe that the brave men and women who serve our nation in uniform and are called to risk their lives in harm’s way for the sake of our national defense.”