The House on Thursday passed, on bipartisan votes, two related measures designed to prevent President Donald Trump from launching military attacks on Iran.
The two votes were the latest sign of lawmakers’ growing willingness in recent years to exercise their war powers muscles after decades of disuse.
Lawmakers voted 236-166 to agree to an amendment from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that would repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. That resolution was cited by the Trump administration as part of its legal justification for carrying out a drone attack near Baghdad in early January that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander.
Since Soleimani’s killing, the administration, including Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper have offered differing explanations for why the Iranian general’s killing was warranted and why prior authorization or even consultation with Congress was unnecessary.
Those differing explanations remind many Democrats and a few Republicans of the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when the George W. Bush administration falsely insisted that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that threatened the United States.
“The 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on lies told by our own executive branch. In 2002, I stood here and urged us not to rush into war,” Lee said in her floor remarks. “I stand here once again urging Congress to do its job, this time by repealing the long outdated and unnecessary 2002 AUMF. Repealing it would have absolutely no impact on the administration’s ongoing military operations.”
The House also voted 228-175 to agree to an amendment from Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., that would deny the Pentagon funding to carry out any unauthorized military operations against Iran. Four Republicans voted for the Khanna amendment; three Democrats against. The four GOP members voting with Khanna were Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky. The three Democrats voting against the Khanna amendment were Conor Lamb, D-Pa., Ben McAdams, D-Utah, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
Both the Lee and Khanna amendments were attached to an unrelated World War II medals bill that now goes to the Senate where it faces uncertain floor prospects, given Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s opposition to constraining the Trump administration when it comes to Iran.
“This amendment does nothing, nothing to restrict” Trump’s ability to protect American interests and American allies, Khanna said during floor debate for his bill, which has nearly 100 Democratic co-sponsors but no Republicans. “It gives him all of the powers of the War Power Resolution. If we are hit, he has every authority to act.”
The Khanna legislation includes an exception for military operations consistent with the 1973 War Powers Act, which allows the use of force “in a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” But such operations under the law must end within three months if Congress has not moved to explicitly approve them.
House Armed Services ranking member Mac Thornberry argued that the Khanna measure would limit the Pentagon’s ability to carry out certain operations aimed at deterring and preventing conflict with Iran.
“We could not work with our allies to try to keep international shipping open in the Persian Gulf,” the Texas Republican said. “We could not engage in cyber operations even to protect ourselves until after the attack had already occurred.”
The killing of Soleimani caused tensions with Iran to reach their highest point in decades. A reprisal ballistic missile attack by Iran on U.S. military bases in Iraq did not lead to any deaths though dozens of U.S. troops have been examined for brain injuries.
The lack of American fatalities in that missile attack has many in Washington bracing for further, more covert retaliation by Iran, which could take the form of cyberattacks on U.S. commercial interests or infrastructure, attacks by Iranian proxy groups on regional partners and allies like Saudi Arabia or Israel, and even kidnappings and attacks on Americans traveling or working abroad.
The specter of further provocations from Iran has Democrats worried the Trump administration could slide into the country’s third war this century in the Middle East but the first to occur without congressional approval.
Freshman Rep. Steve Watkins, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan and then worked for a decade as a defense contractor in the region, criticized Democrats for seeking to limit the Pentagon’s scope of action, warning it could endanger the lives of U.S. troops.
“We need two things on the front lines. We need speed and we need lethality,” the Kansas Republican said. “This body has proven itself incapable of empowering our troops to act with speed and lethality … It’s important for my own survivability that should anything happen to me, they [the enemy] know that a Reaper drone will rain a Hellfire missile down on them. That’s deterrence.”
Lawmakers in the Senate and House in the past two years have held roughly a dozen votes on war powers-related issues. Several of those measures related to American military support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen cleared Congress last year but did not become law after Trump vetoed them.
Khanna rejected Republican lawmakers’ assertion that Democrats were pushing to block military attacks on Iran merely because of their deep partisan antipathy toward Trump.
The two-term lawmaker noted that more than two-dozen GOP House lawmakers, including some of the president’s staunchest supporters such as Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mark Meadows of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio voted last year in favor of a nearly identical amendment he offered during debate for the fiscal 2020 annual defense policy measure.
“It’s time we get past the rhetoric, past the sloganeering and consider why 27 Republicans voted for this,” Khanna said in his floor speech. “Perhaps it has to do with national security, reversing blunder after blunder that cost this country trillions of dollars and lives?”
Gaetz on Thursday again spoke in favor of repealing the 2002 Iraq war authorization and voted for both amendments to limit Trump’s power.
Though both the Khanna amendment and Lee’s proposal to repeal the 2002 Iraq authorization passed the House in 2019 with bipartisan support, they were stripped out of the final defense law during bicameral negotiations with the Senate.
The White House this week threatened to veto both measures, though Trump said in a Twitter post that he supported lawmakers voting “their heart” when it came to repealing the 2002 Iraq authorization.