World / Politics

House votes to curb Trump's power to strike Iran without Congress OK

by Daniel Flatley

Bloomberg

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to limit President Donald Trump’s authority to strike Iran, a mostly symbolic move Democrats say defends Congress’s constitutional powers but Republicans say endangers national security.

The resolution was adopted on a 224-194 vote, as tensions in the Middle East remain high after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated with missiles striking an Iraqi base used by U.S. troops late Tuesday, without casualties, leaving uncertainty about future hostilities.

With Thursday’s resolution, the House is saying that Congress should be consulted before the conflict with Iran escalates. The Senate now can either consider the House-passed measure or move forward with a different version introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia.

The effort to constrain Trump’s power attracted some GOP support but faces tough odds in the Republican-led Senate. Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the measure has “real teeth,” citing the 1973 War Powers Act to limit a president’s military options without consulting Congress.

Democrats criticized the Trump administration for failing to provide clear justification that Soleimani posed an imminent threat. Two Republican senators — Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky — sharply criticized Wednesday’s classified briefing led by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for failing to address their concerns about congressional authorization for the attack.

Lee said the “insulting” briefing tipped his vote in favor of strengthening requirements for the president to consult Congress on military action.

“That briefing is what changed my mind,” Lee said Wednesday. “After today, every time they pull a stunt like this, I’m willing to consider and introduce any and every War Powers Act resolution.”

The House measure, sponsored by Michigan Democrat and former CIA analyst Elissa Slotkin, would require Trump to cease military actions against Iran unless authorized by Congress or in response to an imminent threat.

Republicans and at least one Democrat — New York Rep. Max Rose, an Army veteran — criticized the House resolution as an empty gesture that plays “politics with questions of war and peace.”

The House version is a concurrent resolution that wouldn’t require Trump’s signature if passed by both chambers. The War Power Act provides for a concurrent resolution to have the force of law, although that would probably be challenged in court.

The Senate version Kaine introduced is a joint resolution, which would require the president to sign it to become law. Trump vetoed a previous resolution last year to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen, and the Senate didn’t have enough votes to override his veto.

If either Kaine’s resolution or the House version meets Senate requirements to get a privileged voting status, it would only need a simple majority to pass. With Lee and Paul saying they back Kaine’s resolution, it would need support from at least two more Republicans to pass.

Kaine said he dropped two paragraphs that referenced Trump directly after getting feedback from some Republicans he hopes to attract to his effort. GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Todd Young, who have voted with Democrats for war powers resolutions in the past, said they are considering the Kaine resolution but haven’t committed to it yet.

Kaine’s resolution also states explicitly that the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force don’t cover military action against Iran. The Trump administration included the 2002 AUMF as part of its justification for the drone strike near the Baghdad, Iraq, airport that killed Soleimani.

The White House on Thursday issued a statement challenging the House resolution, saying it’s unnecessary and would lack the force of law. The statement of administration policy also said the 2002 AUMF covers any military action that would be restricted under the House measure.

The statement said that if the provisions of the resolution were to become law, “they could undermine the president’s ability to defend United States forces and interests in the region against ongoing threats from Iran and its proxies.”

Kaine said earlier that it is precisely the risk of conflict with Iran that makes it so important for Congress to defend its constitutional authority to declare war.

“We’re at the brink of war right now,” Kaine said. “It increases the necessity of the bill.”