WASHINGTON ― House Republicans are writing a military authorization that would allow President Joe Biden to strike Iran-backed proxy forces throughout the Middle East if the Israel-Hamas war escalates into a broader regional conflict.
Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, told Defense News on Tuesday he’s drafting the bill in case Lebanon’s Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah steps up its attacks on Israel.
The prospect of escalation comes as Israel continues its week-long aerial bombardment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip following Hamas’ massacre and abduction of Israelis. Hamas continues to launch rockets into Israel as well.
“It’s something we have to prepare for if Hezbollah does get involved,” McCaul said. “The administration does not have authorization to hit any Iran proxies. So, whether its Hezbollah, Hamas, these military Shi’a proxies in Iraq — they don’t have authorization under [U.S.] law to attack.”
McCaul told CNN on Monday he was drafting an Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, saying “I hope I never have to mark this bill up.” He told reporters he prefers an AUMF “with the full backing of the United States Congress” that would target specific Iran-aligned groups without geographical constraints.
Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told Defense News he thinks McCaul’s draft legislation is “premature.”
“If there’s a need for an AUMF, the [Biden] administration will bring it forth,” said Meeks. “The administration’s working very hard now to … give stern warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, which is the thing to do to try to deescalate. So, I don’t think we need to escalate it.”
Iran has threatened to use its proxies throughout the region to open new fronts in the war if Israel proceeds with its plans for a ground invasion of Gaza, with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian threatening “preemptive” action as recently as Tuesday. Iran’s threats come as Biden prepares to arrive in Israel on Wednesday.
The Biden administration has ordered two aircraft carrier strike groups — the USS Ford and USS Eisenhower — into the eastern Mediterranean in response to the Israel-Hamas war. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has also ordered roughly 2,000 troops to prepare to deploy to the Middle East in support roles for Israel.
Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged fire on the Lebanese border since Hamas’ initial attacks last week, and the U.S. fears a broader escalation.
The Biden administration has warned Iran and Hezbollah not to intervene in the war. The White House has also discussed using military force if Hezbollah intervenes, Axios reported Tuesday.
The U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Act stipulate that only Congress can authorize the president to use military force in a foreign war, except in cases of self-defense. Previous administrations from both parties have ignored this, with unauthorized strikes in places like Syria and Libya, citing the president’s authorities as Commander in Chief.
Congress has sought to reassert its war-making authorities in recent years.
The Senate voted 66-30 in March to repeal the 2002 Iraq war AUMF, which former president Donald Trump used as part of the legal justification for his 2021 killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Iraq.
McCaul has argued against a straight repeal of the Iraq war AUMF. His committee is enveloping it in a broader effort to repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF Congress passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Four presidents have since used the 2001 military authorization to justify more than 40 military operations in at least 19 countries across the globe, including Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. has about 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq and roughly another 900 in Syria under the 2001 AUMF. Iran-backed militias sporadically attack U.S. troops stationed in both countries. Biden ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq in 2021 after they attacked U.S. troops.
Previous congressional efforts to repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF have failed over fissures on issues like scope and geographical limitations in a replacement.
Additionally, the House still lacks a speaker after the ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., from the post brought its business to a halt this month. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, on Tuesday failed to secure the 217 votes needed for the position.
Israel’s ongoing strikes have killed some 2,750 Palestinians so far, including civilians and more than 1,000 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The initial Hamas attacks that sparked the war killed roughly 1,400 Israelis, including civilians and nearly 450 children, according to Israeli authorities.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza and a week ago cut off water, food, fuel and electricity to the densely populated strip of roughly 2.1 million people.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.