The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a rare measure aimed at restricting President Donald Trump’s power to launch offensive military attacks against Iran.
In the wake of the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani by U.S. drone last week, the House voted 224-194, largely along party lines, to pass the resolution, which directs Trump to terminate any unauthorized military hostilities against Tehran.
The Democrat-backed resolution was sponsored by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D.-Mich, a former CIA analyst and national security official who specialized in Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
But the resolution stops short of fully restraining Trump’s ability to strike Iran, carving out an exception for situations when military force is “necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent attack” on Americans.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly invoked the prospect of an “imminent threat” to justify Suleimani’s killing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that Suleimani planned an attack that would put “dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk” and Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters earlier this week that it was “more fair to say” that the threat was “days” instead of weeks, away. On Thursday, Trump himself claimed that the Iranians were “looking to blow up our embassy” in Baghdad, but cited no facts to back up the assertion.
Following classified briefings for members of Congress on Wednesday, numerous lawmakers from both parties said that the administration did not present direct evidence of an imminent threat, even when they repeatedly asked officials to do so.
Slotkin explained the decision to limit the measure’s force on the House floor Thursday, saying that her experience as a national security official meant she did not want to interfere with the president’s power to respond to a crisis.
“It is extremely important to me that this resolution in no ways ties the president’s hands, or takes away any capabilities from our military commanders to respond in self-defense for ourselves and for our allies,” said Slotkin.
The resolution passed Thursday invokes the War Powers Act, giving it “privileged” status in both chambers of Congress. That means Democrats can bypass leadership in the Republican-controlled Senate, and any member can bring it up for a vote on the floor.
Procedurally, the measure is also a “concurrent” resolution, meaning that if it passes both chambers of Congress, Trump will not have a chance to veto it. Republicans in the House argued that the measure’s concurrent status meant that it would not be legally binding, rendering it the equivalent of a Democratic press release.
“This is a political statement for a left-wing domestic audience,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But they are not the only ones watching. Iran is watching, and its proxies are watching. And what they see is a divided America that does not fully support the ability of our commander in chief to respond to imminent threats to Americans.”
On the House Floor, McCaul also said he’d met with Trump earlier in the day, and the president had told him that “if this resolution passes, it will take all of his power to negotiate with Iran off the table.”
The Trump administration is not currently engaged in negotiations with Iran, which has repeatedly said that it would not return to the table unless Trump repealed harsh sanctions levied by his administration. In the wake of the Suleimani’s killing, talks seem highly unlikely.
Although the vote was along party lines, one close Republican ally of Trump’s spoke out in favor of the resolution, saying that on Thursday morning he had attended a burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“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,” said Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., “I support the president; killing Suleimani was the right decision. But engaging in another forever war with the Middle East would be the wrong decision, and that’s why I’m voting for this resolution.”
Following classified briefings on Wednesday, progressive Democrats urged Congress to pass a measure with stronger legal authority that would defund an unprovoked war against Iran. The same measure passed the House last year as an amendment to an annual $738 billion Defense Department funding bill, but it was stripped from the final version.
Following Suleimani’s assassination last week, Rep. Ro Khanna, D.-Calif, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I.-Vt., introduced the measure as a standalone bill., and on Wednesday, Khanna told reporters that if that measure had been allowed to pass, Suleimani likely would be alive today. But the new version will probably face stiff opposition in the Senate, where Republican leadership can kill it in committee because it is not “privileged” under congressional rules.
“Do not give a blank check to the Pentagon for $738 billion without a restriction and a commitment that they won’t go into Iran,” Khanna told reporters. “The day we gave them the money without any restriction was the day that they thought they had a blank check.”