House Passes War Powers Resolution In Effort To Restrict Trump's Actions Against Iran

Jan 9, 2020
Originally published on January 10, 2020 7:59 am

Updated 9:15 p.m. ET

The House of Representatives approved a resolution that would force President Trump to seek consent from Congress before taking new military action against Iran.

The move comes nearly a week after President Trump greenlighted a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general and led to increased tensions with Tehran.

The nonbinding war powers resolution was approved in a mostly party-line vote of 224-194. Only three Republicans and one independent joined Democrats to pass the measure. Eight Democrats opposed it.

The Senate could consider a similar measure — but one that has the force of law — as early as next week, but it is unclear if it has enough votes to clear the chamber. Trump administration officials maintain the president already has the authority to take action against Iran under a 2002 war authorization passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The House vote also comes after briefings for lawmakers on Wednesday from top Trump administration officials left Democrats — and some Republicans — unhappy with a lack of transparency about what fueled the decision to strike the Iranian general.

"You would think anytime we would engage in such an important change in approach that we would be working together, consulting together, respecting the approach that each sides takes to all of this and hopefully be on one side of it all," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said ahead of the resolution's passage. "What this does is very important for the security of this country."

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst who worked on Middle East policy.

In response to the vote, the White House said the president "has the right and duty to protect this nation and our citizens from terrorism. That's what he continues to do, and the world is safer for it."

"This House resolution tries to undermine the ability of the U.S. Armed Forces to prevent terrorist activity by Iran and its proxies, and attempts to hinder the President's authority to protect America and our interests in the region from the continued threats," White House Spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement Thursday evening. "These Congressional actions are completely misguided. In fact, this ridiculous resolution is just another political move because, under well-established Supreme Court precedent, it's non-binding and lacks the force of law." The White House reiterated its stance that the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani was authorized under "his constitutional powers as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive as well as the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force."

President Trump also addressed the vote at a campaign rally Thursday night in Toledo, Ohio, and mocked the idea of consulting Congress while carrying out an operation like the killing of Soleimani.

The war powers measure crafted by House Democrats was written as a concurrent resolution, which is traditionally considered nonbinding and doesn't require the president's signature.

Earlier Thursday, Pelosi said they purposely took this approach to ensure that the chamber could send a clear message to the president.

"We are taking this path because it does not require ... a signature of the president of the United States," she said. "This is a statement of the Congress of the United States, and I will not have that statement be diminished by whether the president will veto it or not."

The concerns touch on a years-long discussion over whether the president's war powers are woefully outdated. Under the Trump administration, Democrats and some Republicans have renewed calls for new legislation addressing the president's authorization for use of military force.

Congress has debated how to craft a new AUMF specifically focused on Iran, but it has failed to get consensus on language that would satisfy the broad ideological spectrum that wants the legislative branch to reassert its power to declare war.

On Thursday, administration officials issued a statement strongly opposing the House war powers measure.

"This concurrent resolution is misguided, and its adoption by Congress could undermine the ability of the United States to protect American citizens whom Iran continues to seek to harm," the statement from the Office of Management and Budget on the administration's policy said.

A series of Trump allies and House Republicans also expressed their opposition to the measure on the House floor on Thursday. They argued that Trump used the authority given to the president under an authorization of approved after the Sept. 11 attacks.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said that Trump was working well within his war authorities by striking out against Iran and that the move to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani ended the life of an "evil terrorist."

"This place is a safer place with Soleimani gone," the Louisiana Republican said.

Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, also attacked the Democrats' efforts.

"Thankfully this is a resolution going nowhere," he said. "This is not a resolution, this is a retreat, a de facto apology."

However, some Senate Republicans have expressed interest in recent days to support a similar measure in their chamber.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who is sponsoring the war powers resolution, says he could bring up his measure for a vote as early as Tuesday. He said it would likely have to be coordinated with a potential trial if articles of impeachment are sent to the chamber beforehand.

Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have already said they will support the measure. And Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Todd Young, R-Ind., have also been in talks with Kaine about the legislation and could line up support.

"We are at the brink of war right now. So I think the stakes are much higher now," Kaine said in arguing for the measure. "I think it increases the necessity of the bill."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What power might Congress claim, or reclaim, to limit the president's ability to take further military action against Iran? A war powers resolution sponsored by Democrats was approved yesterday in the House of Representatives. The vote was almost entirely along party lines - almost, although three Republicans did back the proposal, including a very vocal supporter of President Trump, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT GAETZ: I represent more troops than any other member of this body. I buried one of them earlier today at Arlington. And that sergeant died a patriot and a hero. If the members of our armed services have the courage to go and fight and die in these wars, as Congress, we ought to have the courage to vote for them or against them.

INSKEEP: This resolution, having passed the House, goes to the Senate, where its future is uncertain. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales is covering this. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does the resolution actually say?

GRISALES: It prompts the president to seek congressional approval for military engagement against Iran. It does allow for the president to take certain military actions in cases of self-defense. But it does prompt the president to seek that congressional approval first in most cases.

INSKEEP: So according to the measure's sponsors, this does not bind the president from acting in self-defense, acting in an urgent way. But if it's possible, in any occasion possible, he's supposed to check with Congress first...

GRISALES: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...Which Congress claims the right to demand of him because - what? - Congress is supposed to have the power to declare war, right?

GRISALES: That is their argument. They say that power is based in the Constitution, and the president needs to come to Congress before taking such actions.

INSKEEP: OK. What is the president saying about that?

GRISALES: The White House says he doesn't have to. He says he has that power already, according to authorization that was given to the office after the 9/11 attacks. Also the White House said last night that the White House resolution tries to undermine the ability of the U.S. armed forces to prevent terrorism activity by Iran and its proxies. And so they don't see this as a move that's going to impact them. But Democrats argue this resolution they passed will have a force of law. And since it falls under the War Powers Act of the 1970s, they say it doesn't require the president's signature. And it has been approved in this one chamber. But for now, it doesn't have much impact other than sending the strong message to the president to seek this congressional approval.

INSKEEP: You have the White House saying this is just a resolution that wouldn't have the force of law. You have Democrats saying it would have the force of law. This surely is a knowable thing, right? Like, there's a law. So the War Powers Act says - what? - that Congress does in fact have the authority to constrain the president in this way.

GRISALES: Exactly. They say they have the authority. Congress says they have the authority to declare war. And it's not just up to the president to declare these actions on a whim.

INSKEEP: There are some Republicans, as we noted, who have said that they are concerned about presidential power and that they support this war powers resolution. So what happens now that it moves to the United States Senate?

GRISALES: Well, the Senate is actually considering their own war powers resolution. This is being sponsored by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. And in this Republican-controlled chamber, he will need at least four Republicans to sign on to get a chance for passage of this effort. He says he wants to bring it up as early as Tuesday. He has two Republicans who've already signed on. He says he could have as many as four to seven right now according to talks he's having.

INSKEEP: Claudia, thanks for the update.

GRISALES: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Claudia Grisales. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.