Road ahead: House to debate Iran war powers as impeachment articles hold continues

Senate moving ahead with regular business while awaiting impeachment articles to start trial

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to a briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Capitol on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads to a briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Capitol on Monday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 7, 2020 at 5:00am

Lawmakers hope a partisan dispute over Senate trial procedures for considering the House’s impeachment charges against President Donald Trump will be resolved this week. But a solution to the impasse could be complicated by another fight brewing in Congress over whether to restrain Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding the impeachment articles in the House in an effort to force Senate Republicans to agree to Democrats’ demands for certain witnesses and documents to be subpoenaed in the trial. The California Democrat has yet to indicate when she would transmit the articles to the Senate or lay out explicit conditions under which she would do so.

[Pelosi shrugs off GOP gripes about her holding onto articles of impeachment]

Pelosi has been more clear about her views on increasing U.S. tensions with Iran. The speaker announced Sunday that the House will vote this week on a war powers resolution to limit the president’s military response to Iran. The move comes after Trump authorized the killing in Iraq of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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Trump and the administration say the drone strike that killed Soleimani — which comes after Iran led a rocket attack on a military base in Iraq that killed an American contractor and pro-Iranian militia groups swarmed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — was justified because the Iranian general was plotting an imminent attack on Americans.

Democrats say Trump lacked congressional authorization to launch such a “provocative and disproportionate” strike, as Pelosi called it, and are expressing concern that Trump could start a full-blown war with Iran.

The administration is expected to separately brief House and Senate members Wednesday on the Solemani killing and next steps regarding Iran.

Pressure for AUMF debate

The House war powers resolution, which would likely be voted on after the congressional briefings, will mandate that the administration cease military hostilities with regard to Iran within 30 days if no further congressional action is taken during that time, Pelosi said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Sunday announcing the vote.

The speaker said the House resolution will be led by Michigan freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former intelligence and defense analyst specializing in Shiite militias who served multiple tours in the Middle East. It will be similar to a Senate resolution introduced by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. Earlier Sunday, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Barbara Lee of California had announced plans to introduce a House companion to Kaine’s resolution.

Kaine’s resolution would direct the president to remove U.S. armed forces from hostilities with Iran within 30 days “unless specifically authorized by a declaration of war or specific authorization for use of military force.” The resolution would provide an exception for the U.S. to defend itself from imminent attack.

The Democratic resolutions seem designed to force Congress to debate and pass a new authorization for use of military force, or AUMF, within 30 days. This is where the congressional debate over war powers could get mixed with the one over the impeachment trial.

If Pelosi wants the Senate to debate and consider an AUMF within 30 days, she may continue to hold the impeachment articles so they can do so. A Pelosi spokesman did not return a request for comment.

‘Ordinary business’ in Senate

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been unmoved, calling Pelosi’s attempt to “dictate” how the Senate runs its trial a “non-starter.”

The Senate’s rules don’t allow the body to hold a trial without the articles, the Kentucky Republican said in a tweet Monday.

“So, for now, we are content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder,” McConnell said. “For now.” 

McConnell is sticking with his promise that the Senate will return to ordinary business while they wait for the House to send the impeachment articles, which means more nominations are on the schedule this week.

On Monday, McConnell filed cloture on two nominees for the U.S. Federal Claims Court, Eleni Maria Roumel and Matthew H. Solomson, and the nomination of Michael DeSombre to be U.S. ambassador to Thailand, setting up votes later this week on all three.

The Senate may also have to weigh in on the war powers debate at some point in the near future. Under the War Powers Resolution, it will be possible for Kaine or another senator to make a motion to discharge the Foreign Relations Committee in the coming weeks and force a floor vote.

Most Republicans have shown little interest in constraining Trump’s authority to take action against Iran.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, one of the few members of Congress who had advance notice about the plan to strike Soleimani, said in a tweet Monday that he opposes Pelosi’s push for a war powers resolution.

“The last thing America needs is 535 Commanders in Chief,” he said. “Americans elected one: @realDonaldTrump.”

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Bolton provides ‘momentum’

Another matter that could influence Pelosi’s decision-making over when to transmit the impeachment articles to the Senate is the news from former national security adviser John Bolton on Monday that he will testify in the trial if subpoenaed.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer both cited Bolton’s willingness to testify as more reason the Senate should adopt trial procedures that allow for him and other key witnesses to appear.

“The President & Sen. McConnell have run out of excuses,” Pelosi said in a tweet. “They must allow key witnesses to testify, and produce the documents Trump has blocked, so Americans can see the facts for themselves.”

Schumer characterized the Bolton news as “momentum” for his demand that the Senate hear from four key witnesses, which besides Bolton includes acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, senior Mulvaney adviser Robert Blair and Michael Duffey, Office of Management and Budget associate director for national security.

“Given that Mr. Bolton’s lawyers have stated he has new relevant information to share, if any Senate Republican opposes issuing subpoenas to the four witnesses and documents we have requested they would make absolutely clear they are participating in a cover up,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.

“Make no mistake. There will be votes on each of the four witnesses we proposed,” Schumer said on the floor Monday. “Your constituents and history are watching.”

While the House has yet to formally dispense with impeachment, it is moving onto other legislative business. In addition to the war power resolution, the House this week will vote on legislation to require the EPA to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, as hazardous substances.

“Many of us were deeply disappointed that Senate Republicans blocked the inclusion of provisions in the NDAA conference report to clean up communities affected by PFAS contamination and protect Americans from these harmful ‘forever’ chemicals, which can cause cancer and other serious health problems,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Friday outlining the January floor schedule. “When that language was excluded, I vowed to bring the PFAS Action Act to the Floor for a vote when the House reconvened in January, and I am proud to make good on that pledge.”

The House is also considering four bills this week under the fast track process known as suspension of the rules to protect U.S. consumers and national security as 5G telecommunications expand around the globe.

Katherine Tully-McManus and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.