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 ultraliberal 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 Representative 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 Representative 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 defund 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 lectern 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 lectern 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, respectively, 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 endgame.
She made up her mind the day of the vote at the memorial service at Washington 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 Office 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.