Congress unlikely to check Trump’s power to start war with Iran

The recent escalation will likely rekindle the debate over whether Trump has the power to battle Iran without Congress’ consent

President Donald Trump signed into law the sweeping fiscal 2020 appropriations measure on Dec. 20, 2019, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, United States. Language limiting Trump's ability to go to war with Iran, which got support in both chambers, was included in the House version but didn’t make it into the final bill. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump signed into law the sweeping fiscal 2020 appropriations measure on Dec. 20, 2019, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, United States. Language limiting Trump's ability to go to war with Iran, which got support in both chambers, was included in the House version but didn’t make it into the final bill. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Posted January 3, 2020 at 3:50pm

Last year, months before the United States killed a senior Iranian commander in a dramatic escalation of tensions in the Middle East, bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate voted to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran.

The language never actually made it into law, marking another defeat for lawmakers in both parties who have clamored to reassert Congress’ constitutional authority to declare war since the sweeping war authorizations of 2001 and 2002 that have been used to justify American military incursions since then.

[Name Trump or not? Senate responses to Soleimani killing highlight 2020 tightrope]

But the fact that the votes took place at all shows that the prospect of war with Iran — an outcome made much more likely by the U.S. drone strike Thursday that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the covert Quds division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — weighs heavily on the minds of many lawmakers.

Even had it passed, a congressional authorization for use of military force, or AUMF, on Iran would not necessarily have precluded the killing of Soleimani, which Pentagon and other administration officials have described as a preemptive response to an imminent threat to American personnel in Iraq.

The escalation will no doubt rekindle the debate. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, one of the authors of the Senate language voted on last year, on Friday introduced a war powers resolution on Iran, in the hopes of forcing another floor debate — this one perhaps less theoretical — on the matter.

Early indications, however, are that the president’s power to battle Iran will likely go unchecked by Congress.

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March to war?

In May 2018, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, an Obama-era accord signed by seven countries that imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear activities. Almost a year later, the White House designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.

Together with severe economic sanctions, these actions helped reshape America’s posture towards Iran to Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure.

Subsequently, Iran’s acts became more aggressive. U.S. national security officials concluded that Iran bore responsibility for the placement of limpet mines on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the downing of a $130 million U.S. surveillance drone in June 2019. Three months later, Saudi Arabia blamed Iranian forces for a massive missile and drone attack that hobbled the kingdom’s oil production facilities.

Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters in May that classified intelligence reports showed a “cause for concern” about Iran targeting U.S. personnel. In October, upon returning from a congressional trip to the Middle East, Thornberry predicted that the U.S. military would be “tested,” and mentioned Iran as a possible antagonist.

Against this backdrop, Congress held the two votes designed to limit Trump’s ability to start a war with Iran.

On June 28, the Senate voted, 50-40, to include an amendment sponsored by Kaine and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall requiring congressional approval for entering a conflict with Iran to the annual defense policy bill. But the amendment failed to meet a required 60-vote threshold and was not adopted.

On July 12, 27 Republicans joined 223 Democrats and Independent Justin Amash of Michigan to approve a similar amendment to the House’s version of the defense authorization bill introduced by Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. The language, however, was later stripped out during negotiations with the Senate on the final bill, which Trump signed in December.

‘No greater likelihood’

Even in light of recent events, which have also included a rocket attack on a military base in Iraq that killed an American contractor and a conspicuous clash at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, attitudes on Capitol Hill are unlikely to shift drastically, said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for New American Security think tank.

“I don’t think anything is different on the Hill,” said Fontaine, who served as a staffer of both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees and a senior national security adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign of the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. “I think there’s no greater likelihood of an AUMF passing today than there was yesterday.”

To Fontaine, it seems less likely that Senate Republicans would want to tie the president’s hands on Iran during a period of uncertainty where he may need operational flexibility. Democrats, on the other hand, particularly those running for president, will likely push for a visible sign that they are trying to constrain a president they view as reckless, he said.

And if Congress does pass an Iran AUMF, Trump would almost certainly veto it, making the chances of its enactment even more remote.

Thus far, Republican lawmakers have mostly backed the strike that killed Soleimani.

Notably, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch of Idaho was effusive in his praise of the president.

“Congratulations to President Trump on his decisive action and the successful outcome,” Risch said in a Thursday statement, adding that Soleimani’s death was an opportunity for Iraq to reassert its independence from Iran. “On behalf of every American serviceman and servicewoman who has either been killed or injured due to an Iranian-provided IED or rocket in Iraq over the years, today justice was done.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, who leads the Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee, issued a carefully parsed statement that called Soleimani a “depraved terrorist” with the “blood of hundreds of American servicemen and women on his hands.” But the Utah Republican, who has sparred with Trump on foreign policy and other issues, also said it was “imperative that the U.S. and our allies articulate and pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region. I will be pressing the administration for additional details in the days ahead.”

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he wanted more information about the legal justification behind the strike.

“Even if this strike was in self-defense, no current congressional authorization covered it,” Engel said in a Thursday statement demanding notification from the White House.

House Armed Service’s Chairman Adam Smith, who led Democrats in negotiations on the defense authorization bill, likewise questioned the president’s authority.

“The Administration must clearly articulate how this action, and potential future actions, will protect U.S. global interests while ensuring the safety and security of our personnel in the region and worldwide,” Smith said in a statement after the strike. “The American people deserve to know why President Trump has brought us to the brink of another war and under what authorization.”

In the meantime, the White House plans to brief congressional leaders and the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on the strike early next week, according to a senior administration official. Additional briefings open to all members will likely follow next week.

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Rachel Oswald and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.