Bipartisan Group Proposes New War Powers Law

A bipartisan study group led by two former secretaries of state — James Baker and Warren Christopher — is proposing new war powers legislation. It would require the president to consult lawmakers before initiating combat lasting longer than a week, except in emergencies.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Two big names in American foreign policy want to clarify who can take the nation to war. Many lives have turned on that question over the years. The Constitution says Congress has the power to declare war, but it makes the president the commander-in-chief of the military, and many presidents have been accused of all but bypassing Congress.

The War Powers Act in 1973 didn't settle the argument, so now a bipartisan commission will make a try. It is led by James Baker and Warren Christopher, both former secretaries of state. NPR's Tom Gjelten is covering the recommendations, which are due out today. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What do these former diplomats want to do?

GJELTEN: They say that that 1973 War Powers Act is not worth saving. They want to scrap it. They say Congress should repeal it and pass a new law which would be called the War Powers Consultation Act. And this act would set up a special joint congressional committee made up of the leaders of the House and the Senate and the chairman and ranking members of the important committees.

And the White House would have to consult with that particular group before taking the nation into any significant armed conflict, meaning any war that's likely to last more than a week. And that lays out a very specific procedure the president would have to follow in that situation.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask, Tom, how would that change, say, the way the United States went to war in Iraq in 2002, 2003?

GJELTEN: Well, President Bush would've had to go to Congress and say specifically what he wanted to do. But not only that, Steve, Congress would have the responsibility of saying does it agree or not. Congress would have to pass either a resolution of approval or a resolution of disapproval saying it does not agree.

And, you know, members of Congress blame the presidents for taking the nation to war, but Congress has not wanted to take the responsibility itself for these decisions, either.

INSKEEP: Well, now, who's calling for this change, exactly? We say there's a bipartisan commission. Who set it up?

GJELTEN: Well, there is something called the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. A lot of people has said this has to happen over the years. But this center approached Secretaries Baker and Christopher, and as former secretaries of state, both of them felt strongly enough about this issue that they agreed to lead this commission. They've been working on it for more than a year.

INSKEEP: I'm just remembering that James Baker was secretary of state when the United States went to war against Iraq the first time, and they went and did consult with Congress. There was a vote. Even before the war in Iraq, there was a vote, although it was a vote of sorts, saying that the president has the authority to go to war on his choice.

So is Baker saying that, in particular, this Republicans former secretary of state saying that in those cases, he's not satisfied with the way things worked out?

GJELTEN: Well, in fact, the way it's worked out in practice is presidents have gone to Congress in some way, but they have always made clear they don't like this act. Every president, Democrat and Republic alike, has said the War Powers Act is unconstitutional. Congress has never been satisfied with it. So both sides have basically either ignored or sort of found some informal way to work around it.

INSKEEP: Well, is this bipartisan commission, then, by implication at least, criticizing the current President Bush and his conception of broad presidential powers?

GJELTEN: They made very clear that they're not going to have a word to say about this administration. But interestingly enough, they're trying to look ahead to the next war. But interestingly enough, one of their advisors was Doris Kearns Goodwin, and this report that's coming out today will have a lot of historical references to it…

INSKEEP: Oh, she's (unintelligible)…

GJELTEN: …not to this administration, but previous ones.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they are going to look at other…

GJELTEN: Yes.

INSKEEP: …cases…

GJELTEN: That's right.

INSKEEP: …not the controversial ones, the most controversial ones we have now. Tom, thanks very much.

GJELTEN: Anytime, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten reporting on today's expected announcement from a bipartisan commission proposing a new way to require the president and Congress to consult in case of a possible war.

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