Congress Moves to Restrict Trump’s War Powers, Repeal 17-Year Iraq War Authorization

The House passed two measures aimed at restricting the president’s war powers, including a bipartisan amendment sponsored by Reps. Ro Khanna and Matt Gaetz.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 9: Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., speaks during the press conference in the Capitol to unveil the No War Against Iran Act on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)
Rep. Ro Khanna speaks during a press conference in the Capitol to unveil the No War Against Iran Act on Jan. 9, 2020. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed two measures aimed at restricting President Donald Trump’s war powers. The first, sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fl., would prohibit the administration from spending any money to attack Iran without congressional preapproval, except in self defense. The second, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., would repeal Congress’s 17-year-old Iraq War authorization, which the Trump administration cited as a legal basis for assassinating Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani earlier this month.

Republican leadership in the Senate is likely to block a vote, though some Senate Republicans have supported similar legislation in the aftermath of the United States’ killing of Suleimani. Even so, the measures — both amendments attached to an uncontroversial commemorative bill — are further censure for Trump’s confrontational Iran policy.

“We’re taking additional steps to protect American lives and values,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the House floor Thursday. “Members of Congress continue to have serious, urgent concerns about the president’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran and about its lack of strategy moving forward.”

In the past month, the Trump administration has imposed further sanctions, and tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain high. The amendments come on the heels of the Pentagon’s recent admission that Iran’s retaliatory missile strike caused 50 U.S. service members to suffer traumatic brain injuries.

Following Suleimani’s assassination, the administration was pressed to provide answers about the legal authority that allowed them to assassinate a senior Iranian government official, and the administration cited the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq resolution, the text of which doesn’t mention Iran. Instead, it authorizes the use of force to defend “against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

The authorization has been stretched to justify other U.S. action in Iraq since — including the counterinsurgency following Saddam Hussein’s fall. Legal scholars have also argued that it could also serve as part of the legal basis for the anti-ISIS campaign, but expressed doubt that it could reasonably be interpreted to go after Iran.

“It is important to note that nearly 75 percent of current members [of Congress] were not serving when AUMF was passed in 2002,” Lee said, speaking on the floor Thursday. “There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that’s what the 2002 authorization was about.”

The White House sent a letter earlier this week threatening to veto legislation that places restrictions on attacking Iran, saying that such restrictions would “undermine the Administration’s reestablishment of deterrence with Iran,” and would “embolden the Iranian regime and make the world less safe.”

Then, on Wednesday, Trump sent an ambiguous tweet on the Iraq War authorization, directed toward members of Congress: “I want everyone, Republican and Democrat, to vote their HEART!”

Gaetz, a co-sponsor of the Iran measure, also broke ranks to speak in favor of Lee’s amendment, and seemed to refer to Trump’s tweet. “I come to vote my heart. Saddam died more than a decade ago, and even the faintest echoes of his regime have long dissolved,” Gaetz said. “If we are unable to declare victory and bring our troops home at this time, after Saddam is dead, after his regime is evaporated, after ISIS collapsed, then no war is ever truly winnable.”

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution directing Trump to terminate unauthorized military action against Iran. Democrats on the floor explained that their votes reflect an increasing concern in Congress that Trump’s actions could quickly escalate into war.

Last year, Congress has previously passed the Khanna-Gaetz measure last year, as an amendment to a major annual policy bill last year, and it drew 27 Republican votes. A companion amendment got 50 votes in the Senate, but due to procedural maneuvering from Republican leadership, it needed 60 votes. Democrats were ultimately unable to secure the amendment in the final compromise version of the bill. It, as well as other amendments, were traded for other Democratic priorities, like securing paid family leave for federal employees.

Khanna told reporters on Wednesday that he thought if Congress had passed the amendment last year, it would have prevented the Suleimani strike from taking place. “It was a horrible deal, I said that at the time,” Khanna said. “In retrospect, we should never have given the Pentagon that blank check. … It’s a wake-up call with this Congress that we have to be far more vigilant in restricting military intervention overseas.”

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