It’s a recent Wednesday afternoon, and Barbara Lee’s communications director is trying to find her. She’s scheduled to give a speech in nine minutes, and she hasn’t read it yet.
The anti-war congresswoman — from an ultra-liberal congressional district that includes Berkeley, California — has somehow managed to spark an uprising, joined by rank-and-file Republicans, against House Speaker Paul Ryan. Their demand: Repeal the 2001 war authorization against Al Qaeda and begin debating a new authorization better suited for the wars of today. This strange alliance is all the more remarkable because Lee, one of the leftmost denizens of Capitol Hill, was famously the only member of Congress to vote against the original authorization of force, a vote held just three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Explaining her decision at the time, she warned, in language that rankled many as the smoke still curled from the ruins of the World Trade Center, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
For Republicans, who have routinely opposed Lee’s past efforts to repeal the 2001 war authorization, something has changed — but their motivations differ. Some, like Rep. Scott Taylor of Virginia, say that after three presidents and 16 years of constant war, they had simply reached a breaking point. “It’s time that the American people, via their representatives, are engaged in this debate,” says Taylor, a former Navy SEAL who was injured while fighting in Iraq. Others, like Utah Rep. Chris Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, say that with the election of President Donald Trump, Republicans have a chance to craft a new authorization that will not constrain the U.S. military in its war against the Islamic State. “The reason Republicans didn’t really push this in the Obama administration was because many of us feared that he would have a confined AUMF,” says Stewart, using the acronym for authorization for use of military force. “We think we have a president now who would take a more aggressive stand.”
Taylor, Stewart and other Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee stunned Congress-watchers last month for lining up behind an amendment by Lee to repeal the 2001 AUMF. After all, for the better part of two decades, Republicans had ignored Lee’s frequent efforts to rein in an executive branch that many feel has too much freedom to wage war around the globe. They rolled their eyes at ideas like her proposal to create a “Department of Peacebuilding” or to de-fund U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, they were signing on to an amendment that would, over Ryan’s objections, give Congress an eight-month window to debate and pass a new war resolution against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. And it had Barbara Lee’s name on it.
The amendment was ultimately blocked this month from coming to the House floor for a vote. But the willingness of rank-and-file Republicans to support it has sent an unmistakable message to congressional leaders: They can no longer keep ducking this issue. The bipartisan support for Lee’s amendment has also made her a central player in the high-wire negotiations over the next steps — giving her some leverage, a rare commodity for a lawmaker on the far left in a Congress that for years has been veering right. The big question is whether she can capitalize on it. Can the pent-up frustration she has exposed within the Republican ranks translate into full-fledged debate to repeal the 2001 war resolution?
It’s now three minutes until Lee’s speech, in which she’s expected to tackle this question head on. But her communications director, Christopher Huntley, still can’t find her. In Huntley’s hands is a blue folder containing a copy of the speech, which Lee is supposed to review on her walk to the venue — a podium just outside the Capitol in the 94-degree heat.
Just then, Huntley gets a call. The congresswoman has been located. She has apparently walked to the podium herself — without a chance to read over her speech in advance. It doesn’t really matter, though, because it’s a speech she’s been giving since Sept. 14, 2001.
In an interview in her Capitol Hill office, Lee describes the moment she decided to vote against the 2001 war resolution. A self-described military brat whose father and ex-husband served in the Army and Air Force, Lee had been agonizing over the decision to authorize war against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Her then-chief of staff, Sandré Swanson, was mourning the death of his cousin, who had been on United Airlines Flight 93.
“Growing up with stories and being in a military family, I understand that we don’t want to send our young men and women into harm’s way if we can avoid that,” Lee says. She insists she’s not a pacifist and prefers the label “pro-peace” to “anti-war,” explaining that she “just grew up looking for alternatives to military solutions.” She says there needed to be some military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but she was concerned Congress was rushing to put its stamp of approval on a war without a clear strategy or end-game.
She made up her mind the day of the vote at the memorial service at the National Cathedral attended by then-President George W. Bush and former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The Reverend Nathan Baxter led the congregation in prayer, calling upon the country’s leaders, as they “consider the necessary actions for national security,” to “not become the evil we deplore.”
It was those words, which she would go on to repeat, that sealed Lee’s decision. After that, she felt at peace. “I was very calm about it,” she says. “It didn’t faze me after that.”
Lee edited her speech by hand on her way to the vote. On the House floor, she implored her colleagues, “We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” She compared the 2001 AUMF, written in vague terms with no end date or geographic limitations, to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that paved the way for Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam. “There must be some of us who say: Let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today,” she pleaded. “I do not want to see this spiral out of control.”
Lee didn’t realize until the voting was underway that she would be the only one of 431 House members and 100 senators to oppose the measure. Once that had become clear, some of Lee’s closest House colleagues, including fellow California Democrat Nancy Pelosi, approached her in the cloakroom to urge her to change her mind before the voting closed, as Lee recounts in her 2008 memoir. “They were concerned about me personally,” Lee says, explaining that her colleagues believed the vote could cause her to lose reelection. The entire country was rallying around Bush and his pledge “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”
But Lee wouldn’t budge.
Her first phone call after the vote was from her dad, then 77, a veteran of World War II and Korea. As she walked through the tunnel from the Capitol to her office in the Rayburn House Building, he told her it “was the right vote and to never do anything that was irrational — that we had to be thoughtful and understand the implications of our actions.”
The immediate reaction from the public was very different. Lee’s office was soon fielding thousands of calls and emails, some of them denouncing her as a traitor to her country. She was receiving death threats. The Capitol Police decided she needed a 24-hour security detail, and officers were soon parked outside her offices and house. They accompanied her everywhere, she says, even to church and the grocery store.
“There were a lot of haters out there,” she recalls now. “There were a lot of Barbara Lee haters.” But it quickly became clear that there were also plenty of supporters. People opposed to the U.S. war in Afghanistan — and the growing drumbeat for war in Iraq — began using the slogan, “Barbara Lee speaks for me.” A 2002 Democratic primary challenger seeking to capitalize on Lee’s AUMF vote dropped out of the race. Lee ended up winning reelection that year with 82 percent of the vote — and hasn’t faced a serious electoral challenge, either in a primary or general election, since.
“My district,” she says, “it didn’t take long for them to get it.”
Lee now finds herself improbably back in the national spotlight, thanks to Republican rebels like Stewart and Taylor.
The uprising began during the most mundane of events, the annual House Appropriations Committee markup of the Pentagon’s budget. Lee, like she does most years, put forward an amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF, which has since become the legal underpinning for the global war on terror — cited now by three presidents as justification for U.S. military operations the world over, from the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, and even on the “high seas,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
In past years, like clockwork, Republicans and hawkish Democrats had come together to defeat Lee’s repeal amendment, along with other amendments she routinely offers, and move on with a markup session that can stretch three hours or more as lawmakers vote on dozens of amendments to the Pentagon’s budget. This year’s markup was different, though, featuring the rarest of congressional spectacles: an earnest debate in which minds were changed, followed by a vote no one could have predicted.
Dutch Ruppersberger, a centrist Democrat from a military-heavy Maryland congressional district, was among those who decided his vote in real time. He had planned to oppose the amendment, just as he had in years past. But he felt moved when Stewart and Taylor rose to voice support. “When two respective members of the military stand up and make a comment,” he said at the time, “I’m listening.”
Taylor, too, had a change of heart that morning. He had not planned to speak in support of Lee’s amendment but “felt compelled to,” he later explains, in the heat of the moment. “I don’t think any of us in that committee room thought that it was going to go like it did,” says the freshman representative, whose Virginia Beach district includes the world’s largest naval station. “Congressman Stewart and I, when we got up, that changed everything, quite frankly.”
Just one Republican, Kay Granger of Texas, voiced opposition to Lee’s amendment, which was adopted with overwhelming support from the 52 members of the Appropriations Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike. Its passage elicited a surprised smile from the committee’s Republican chairman, Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, and applause from the other lawmakers in the room.
Suddenly Lee’s quixotic mission to repeal the 2001 AUMF had taken on a new life. Cable news networks that once ignored her were calling for interviews. She was headlining press conferences with fellow anti-war lawmakers. And she was negotiating with some of the most powerful Republicans in a GOP-controlled Washington.
Lee was also forming some unlikely alliances. Earlier this month, she went on the radio in Virginia with talk-show host John Fredericks, a staunch Trump backer. The odd pair found common cause over their mutual opposition to military adventurism, and by the end of the interview Fredericks had concluded that Lee made “a lot of sense.”
“We’re going to start a ‘draft Lee for Democratic minority leader’ right here on my radio show,” said the conservative host. “Lee for minority leader. I’m going to start that rumor.”
The uprising has put Ryan in a tough spot. The Wisconsin Republican was elected House speaker in 2015 on a pledge to return to what’s called “regular order” — with power over legislation dispersed among House committees, rather than concentrated in the speaker’s office. But Ryan, who quickly made clear he opposed Lee’s amendment, was forced this month to defy the bipartisan will of the Appropriations Committee, stripping out the amendment before it could come before the full House for debate — a move almost certainly at odds with the spirit of “regular order.”
“Removing the provision this way was in the institutional interest of the House since it removed a distraction to the consideration of these important appropriations bills,” a spokeswoman for Ryan, AshLee Strong, said after the decision. “The Lee amendment was an irresponsible measure that would have … left service members in the field without an authorization to defeat al-Qaeda and ISIS and could have led to the release of the prisoners at Guantanamo.”
Lee, for her part, denounced Ryan’s move as “undemocratic” and “underhanded.”
“Stripping my bipartisan amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF — in the dead of night, without a vote — may be a new low from Speaker Ryan,” she said in a statement after learning of the decision. “Congress has been missing in action on matters of war and peace for nearly sixteen years. Republican leadership showed last night that they will do anything to maintain this status quo.”
Lee says her upbringing prepared her for the lonely fight she would later wage in Congress against what she calls “perpetual war.”
She was born in El Paso, Texas, where schools at the time were segregated. So her parents sent her and her two sisters to Catholic school, where they “were the only black kids,” she recalls, and “always had to kind of go against the grain.”
The history textbooks at the school glossed over the horrors of slavery, she explains — horrors evident in the light-skinned complexion of many of Lee’s maternal relatives, as she says in her memoir. Her great-grandmother, a slave, had been raped repeatedly by her white owner, bearing several of his children, including Lee’s grandmother. “It’s heart-wrenching to think of the fear and pain exacted on the women of my family by violent, predatory bigots,” she writes.
She says she grew up feeling self-conscious about her appearance and lacking self-esteem. But she had gained some confidence — and a penchant for standing up to authority — by the time she attended high school in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, where she ran in what she calls her “first election.”
The school had never before had a black cheerleader, she writes in her memoir, with selections for the cheerleading squad made by a “small committee of white folks.”
“You had to be blonde, blue-eyed and look right to be a cheerleader,” she says. “I didn’t look right.” She enlisted the help of the NAACP and got the rules changed, so that the entire student body could vote to select its cheerleaders. She then auditioned in front of about 800 students, doing “cheers and cartwheels and, you know, all that,” she says. “And I did it.” She was selected — becoming the school’s first black cheerleader, but not without some opposition. “People were angry,” she recalls. “People were bringing chains to school. It created a little dicey situation in the community where there was almost a riot.”
The next few years, for Lee, were a whirlwind. She got pregnant at 16, which she attributes in her memoir to her lack of sexual education and Catholic teachings on contraception. She got married, in secret, and then had a miscarriage. She then followed her husband, who was in the Air Force, to England, and had two sons. At age 20, she got divorced. That’s the moment, she says, when “all hell broke loose” — with Lee ending up “sort of homeless” with no job.
She went on welfare and eventually received federal assistance to go to Mills College in Oakland. She couldn’t afford child care and often dragged her two boys — both of them now in the insurance industry — to classes with her. “I hauled them everywhere,” she says, including to the Black Panther Party meetings she was then attending. She became friends with Black Panther co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton — and at one point even came under FBI surveillance because of her association with the group, whose alleged acts of violence she says she did not and never has condoned. She later submitted a public-records request for the FBI’s file on her and writes in her memoir that it was “hard to believe what I read — and yes, quite scary to see that they had spied on me.”
Lee went on to get a master’s degree in social work at the University of California, Berkeley and became active in the failed presidential campaign of Democrat Shirley Chisholm, the first black candidate to seek a major party’s nomination (slogan: "unbought and unbossed"). Lee then got an internship with then-Rep. Ron Dellums, an anti-Vietnam activist who became Lee’s mentor. She worked her way through the ranks in Dellums’ office and was eventually named his chief of staff. And when Dellums resigned from Congress in 1997, Lee ran in a special election for his seat.
It was Dellums, also a social worker, whom she turned to for advice in the days after 9/11, when she was agonizing over the upcoming AUMF vote.
Her former boss, who had served in the Marine Corps, did not tell her how he thought she should vote, Lee says, but instead walked her through the implications of the decision.
“We talked about the emotional state of the country, as social workers, as clinical social workers, which he is, in terms of how you make rational decisions,” Lee recalls. “One is you don’t do it in the heat of emotion, in fear. Because you’re always going to make the wrong decision if you’re doing stuff based on fear.”
Sixteen years later, many of the things Lee warned about in her speech ahead of the AUMF vote have come to pass — as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now concede.
The United States remains at war in Afghanistan, locked in a stalemate with the Taliban. The Pentagon is preparing a new strategy that could involve thousands more U.S. troops. The country is also at war in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. Congress never voted to authorize this war, instead relying on the 2001 AUMF, even though ISIS did not exist when the authorization was passed.
The 2001 resolution stands at just over 300 words, authorizing the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, along with those who harbored them. The resolution’s spare language has since been stretched to encompass potential terrorist threats all over the world — and it is often described as authorizing war against Al Qaeda and “associated forces,” even though those words do not appear in the resolution. It has been used as justification for drone strikes and other military operations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It’s been cited by the Supreme Court as the legal basis for the detention of so-called enemy combatants at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorist suspects are being held indefinitely without access to civilian courts.
“The original AUMF has been stretched I think beyond the breaking point when you’re literally fighting enemies that didn’t exist in places that you never intended to fight,” says Republican Tom Cole, one of Ryan’s staunchest allies in Congress. The Oklahoma congressman decided last month to support Lee’s amendment during the committee markup. He now says he never intended Lee’s amendment to become law and that the purpose was to “get the attention of people, and that seems to have succeeded.”
“I think members of Congress, regardless of where they’re at on the ideological or partisan spectrum, are very uncomfortable with the erosion of congressional warmaking power,” Cole adds.
There are signs Congress might be preparing to reassert itself.
When he stripped Lee’s amendment, Ryan replaced it with a provision by Cole designed to get the ball rolling on a new AUMF. The measure orders the Trump administration to submit, within 30 days of its passage, a strategy to defeat Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State, along with an analysis of the current legal framework for doing so. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing last week on the 2001 AUMF. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding similar hearings, and two senators — Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — are pushing a bipartisan measure that would repeal existing war resolutions while authorizing force specifically against ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Their proposal has a five-year sunset date.
“I think there is bipartisan recognition that we never intended the 2001 [resolution] to cover the military campaign in Syria,” says Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel.
But many of the partisan divisions that stymied previous efforts to pass a new AUMF remain. Republican defense hawks are unwilling to agree to terms that they say would constrain the military, such as geographic limitations. And many Democrats, who still remember the political backlash over their votes in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War, are unwilling to support anything that doesn’t impose tight restrictions, such as a prohibition on the use of ground U.S. combat troops against ISIS. A handful of more libertarian-minded Republicans are united with Democrats in demanding strict limitations, further complicating the politics of the issue. And in the Senate, a new AUMF would likely require 60 votes for passage, meaning it would need support from members of both parties.
The Trump administration so far has not made any official request for Congress to pass a new AUMF to cover the war against ISIS. But Trump’s defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, wrote a 2015 blog post for the Hoover Institution calling for exactly that. A new resolution, "supported by a majority of both parties in both houses of Congress, will send an essential message of American steadfastness to our people and to the global audience." He argued for a broad resolution with no deadlines, geographic limits or restrictions on potentially using ground combat troops.
Lee, for her part, is vowing to keep up the fight. She’s been in talks with Cole about next steps and already has plans for more amendments, more attempts to stoke the unrest within the Republican ranks. “We’re going to win this eventually,” says the 71-year-old congresswoman. Asked if she believes the 2001 AUMF will be repealed by the time she leaves Congress, she laughs.
“By the time I leave Congress?” she says. “I don’t have any plans to leave Congress.”