NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — It took a Virginian teaming up with a war hero, but the question of how the United States ought to send young men and women off to war is now back before the U.S. Congress.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain joined up to put a new War Powers Act on the national agenda. Their aim is to replace the 40-year-old War Powers Resolution passed in the wake of the Vietnam War and pretty much ignored ever since.
"If we're going to ask our young men and women to risk their lives, they deserve to know the president and Congress have done the hard work of finding political consensus for that," Kaine said, speaking a few hours after he and McCain formally introduced the bill on Thursday.
It is a particularly pointed issue in Virginia, he told his fellow senators.
"Our map is a map of American military history, from Yorktown where the Revolutionary War ended to Appomattox where the Civil War ended to the Pentagon where 9/11 happened. That is who we are," he said. "These issues of war and peace matter so deeply to us as they do to all Americans."
He said afterwards that he's been troubled by the issue for years.
As a teenager watching the Vietnam War end and still later seeing the price Vietnam veterans paid as bitterness over the war lingered, Kaine said he has become obsessed with the idea that service men and women deserve to know the nation supports them when they fight. Last year, he said President Barack Obama should consult with Congress before starting any military action in Syria.
The Constitution says the president is commander-in-chief, and that it is Congress that has the power to declare war. But presidents have sent troops into harm's way more than 100 times without congressional authorization.
The problem, said Kaine, is that there are plenty of gray areas between dispatching Marines to help typhoon survivors in Philippines, as the United States did last year, and a conflict like World War II, the last formal declaration of war by Congress.
The bill he and McCain introduced says presidents must consult with Congress before sending troops into combat operations expected to last more than seven days. That's meant to give a precise definition of when the White House needs to go to Congress.
The bill also creates a permanent congressional committee of senior members of both the House and Senate to make sure consultation means dialogue.
It sets up a formal procedure for a vote in Congress on any significant conflict within 30 days. Even if the vote comes after troops have stood down, Kaine said, it's still important for Congress to act. It is a matter of accountability, in his view.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution says presidents must notify Congress within 48 hours of deploying military forces and says armed forces can't remain in combat for more than 90 days without Congress' approval. That didn't happen with deployments to Balkans in the 1990s, with the maintenance of a no-fly zone over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and with the dispatch of troops to Libya in 2011.
Kaine said he's been disturbed that presidents don't ask, and that Congresses are content to duck the issue if the question isn't asked. Both are ways of avoiding responsibility, he said.