The House on Thursday approved on a sharply partisan vote, 224-194, a concurrent resolution seeking to curb the power of President Donald Trump to attack Iran.
But the parliamentary nature of the measure would not actually bind the White House’s hands even if the Senate were to go along with the resolution because it would never go to Trump's desk for signature.
Fears of an irresistible slide toward a hot war with Iran peaked Tuesday night after Tehran launched ballistic missiles at Iraqi military bases where U.S. forces were deployed as part of a counter-Islamic State terrorism mission. The Iranian government said the missile attack, which did not result in any American casualties, was revenge for last week’s lethal drone strike by the United States on Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and broadly perceived as one of the country’s most powerful officials.
Since then, both Tehran and Trump appear to have backed away from further direct military confrontation. However, experts familiar with Iran’s history of covert operations say that further retaliatory attacks with plausible deniability could occur in the weeks and months ahead. Those could include kidnappings of Americans abroad, cyber strikes on U.S. infrastructure and commercial interests and attacks on U.S. partner countries in the Middle East through Iranian proxies such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.
“For me this is not a theoretical exercise,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who served three tours in Iraq where she specialized in the study of Iranian-backed Shiite militias and who sponsored the anti-Iran war resolution. “I have followed Iran’s destabilizing activity in Iraq up close for my entire professional career. I have watched friends and colleagues hurt or killed by Iranian rockets, mortars and explosive devices. Iranian Gen. Soleimani was the lead architect of much of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East and throughout the world.”
Slotkin, a freshman Democrat from Michigan and a former senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration, noted her son-in-law’s military unit is stationed at Al Asad air base in Iraq, which was attacked by Iranian missiles this week.
Her resolution directs the Trump administration to immediately halt any military attacks on Iran and Iranian officials that are not separately authorized by Congress. The measure does, however, include an exception for military actions “as necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent armed attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
“That’s a limited exception, the president shouldn’t abuse it,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., who leads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
His Republican counterpart on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, accused Democrats of reflexively opposing anything the president does.
“Democrats are incapable of giving this president credit where credit is due, which only emboldens Iran,” McCaul said. “The president is not seeking war with Iran. The president, if anything, has shown great restraint with Iran.”
As Democrats chose to adopt a concurrent resolution, which is nonbinding and used by lawmakers to handle such housekeeping measures as authorizing the use of Capitol grounds for special functions, it would not have the force of law if adopted by the Senate.
After adoption by both chambers, concurrent resolutions do not come before the president for signature or veto. That is why a previous generation of lawmakers, eager to end a long spate of unauthorized military conflicts in Southeast Asia, wrote the 1973 War Powers Act in such a way as to specifically permit the use of concurrent resolutions to end congressionally unauthorized military operations.
But in a 1983 Supreme Court ruling over a separate disputed immigration law, the court ruled against the legal validity of congressional measures that do not come before the president for signature or veto.
“Since Section 5(c) [of the War Powers Act] requires forces to be removed by the president if Congress so directs by a concurrent resolution, it is constitutionally suspect under the reasoning applied by the Court,” concludes a March 2019 report on the law by the Congressional Research Service.
Had House Democrats sought a joint resolution, which has the force of law, Republicans could have attached a motion to recommit, or MTR, which means it would not be a privileged resolution in the Senate. So instead, they filed it as a concurrent resolution, which does not require a MTR vote.
Still, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued to reporters Thursday that the Iran resolution had “real teeth.”
A War Powers resolution is a statement of the Congress, the California Democrat said. “And I will not have this statement be diminished by whether the president would veto or not.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was dismissive of the resolution.
“The Supreme Court ruled that in the [INS v. Chadha] case that concurrent resolutions are unconstitutional as a means to limit the executive branch,” the California Republican said. “This resolution has as much force of law as a New Year’s resolution. It is nothing more than a press release.”
In the Senate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has offered a legally binding resolution to order the end of unauthorized hostilities with Iran. Two Republicans – Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah – have said they will support the measure though at least two more GOP senators must cross the aisle for the resolution to have any chance of congressional passage. And then it would still come before Trump for his likely veto.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.