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Specter Explores Congress’ Role on War Policies

Even as Senate Democrats ready a bill to rewrite President Bush’s authorization for the Iraq War, Senate Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is raising constitutional questions about just what Congress can do to restrict the commander in chief’s ability to wage war.

“I’m worried that the Congress is going to go off half-cocked,” said Specter, according to a transcript of a Feb. 22 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I don’t want to see something come to the Senate and have a historic debate … and be called upon to vote on something which I haven’t fully explored, and the Senate doesn’t understand.”

In a Feb. 20 letter to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Specter called for more hearings on Congress’ options regarding Iraq and specifically questioned the Democrats’ nascent plan to rewrite the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq.

“I question whether, absent the use of the appropriations power, the only choice for the Congress is a total repeal of the authorization to use military force in Iraq,” Specter wrote. “If Congress acts to repeal the authorization to use force in Iraq, the question may arise whether the President may veto that action requiring a two-thirds override.”

Indeed, Bush is unlikely to sign such a repeal or any modification to the 2002 Iraq War authorization, and Senate Republicans are expected to vigorously object to — and possibly filibuster — any new authorization measure.

But Specter indicated in his letter that if a new war authorization measure were to become law, it would be binding on the president even though Bush and other presidents have treated war authorizations as mere expressions of support that do not have the force of law.

Specter pointed out that the current war authorization governing the Iraq conflict “placed restrictions on the President’s use of force in Iraq, requiring him to certify that diplomatic means are insufficient and that the use of force will not impede the war on terrorism,” among other things.

Of course, Congress twice repealed the use of force authorization for the Vietnam War, but then-President Lyndon Johnson essentially told Members that he never needed their permission in the first place, noted Louis Fisher, a Constitutional scholar at the Law Library of Congress.

Specter also outlined a number of ways in which Congress previously has restricted or cut off funds for war efforts, most notably during then-President Richard Nixon’s administration in the early 1970s.

However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has repeatedly said that Democrats will not move to cut off funding for troops currently in Iraq and he has reacted coolly to proposals to restrict funds for Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more troops to the region.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer interview, Specter said Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) proposal to use the appropriations power to put strict limits on troop movements in an attempt to force a draw-down of troops in Iraq might go too far.

He said the key question Senators must answer will be “where Congressional power ends under the precedents that I cited in the letter and where micromanagement begins.”

In the letter, which Leahy’s office said he had not yet seen, Specter outlined several other ways that Congress could effect a change in the president’s Iraq policy, while Democrats also said the authorization for the war is just one weapon in their arsenal.

“We’re examining all our options to force President Bush to make the necessary changes in Iraq,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Though Specter declined to specify what he would be willing to vote for, he noted in his letter that Congress in the past has dictated military personnel choices to the president as well as troop levels under its constitutional authority to “raise and regulate armies and navies.”

Following the Civil War, for example, Congress barred then-President Andrew Johnson from firing Gen. Ulysses S. Grant without prior approval from the Senate, the letter stated. Under then-President Theodore Roosevelt, Congress required that the crews on naval vessels should be made up of at least 8 percent Marines.

“This represents a specific action by the Congress to control a quite specific aspect of warfare,” Specter noted of the naval vessel provision.

Fisher, however, said Congress has even more options — from targeting the president’s domestic priorities to removing him from office.

“One big recourse, when you’re dealing with the president, is that you can always [use Congressional powers] to hurt him elsewhere,” said Fisher, who testified at a Jan. 30 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the subject of Congress’ war powers. “The big one at the very end, of course, is impeachment.”

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