Middle East conflicts revive clash between the president and Congress over war powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A major deadline under the half-century-old War Powers Resolution came this week for President Joe Biden to obtain Congress' approval to keep waging his military campaign against Yemen's Houthis, in line with its sole authority under the U.S. Constitution to declare war and otherwise authorize military force.

Came, and went, in public silence — even from Senate Democrats frustrated by the Biden administration's blowing past some of the checkpoints that would give Congress more of a say in the United States' deepening military engagement in the Middle East conflicts.

The Biden administration contends that nothing in the War Powers Resolution, or other deadlines, directives and laws, requires it to change its military support for Israel's five-month-old war in Gaza, or two months of U.S. military strikes on the Houthis, or to submit to greater congressional oversight or control.

That's left some frustrated Senate Democrats calibrating how far to go in confronting a president of their own party over his military authority.

Democrats are wary of undercutting Biden as he faces a difficult reelection campaign. Their ability to act is limited by their control of only one chamber, the Senate, where some Democrats — and many Republicans — back Biden’s military actions in the Middle East.

While Biden's approach gives him more leeway in how he conducts U.S. military engagement since Hamas' Oct. 7 attacks, it risks making any crisis deeper if things go badly wrong.

James A. Siebens, leader of the Defense Strategy and Planning project at the Stimson Center in Washington, called it a “latent constitutional crisis.”

The Middle East conflicts have revived what's been a long-running clash between presidents, who are the commanders in chief, and Congress, which holds the authority to stop and start wars, or lesser uses of military force, and controls their funding.

U.S. and British warships, planes and drones opened attacks on Houthi targets in Yemen on Jan. 11. Hundreds of U.S. strikes have followed. The U.S. strikes are aimed at knocking back what has been a surge of attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis, a clan-based movement that has seized control of much of northern Yemen, on international shipping in the Red Sea since the Israel-Hamas war began.

Biden formally notified Congress the next day. The administration took pains to frame the U.S. military campaign as defensive actions and not as “hostilities” that fall under the War Powers Resolution.

The resolution gives presidents 60 days after notifying Congress they’ve sent U.S. forces into armed conflict either to obtain its approval to keep fighting, or to pull out U.S. troops. That deadline was Tuesday.

The White House continues to insist that the military actions are to defend U.S. forces and do not fall under the resolution's 60-day provision.

Congress pushed through the War Powers Resolution over presidential veto in 1973, moving forcefully to reclaim its authority over U.S. wars abroad as President Richard Nixon expanded the Vietnam War.

Since then, presidents have often argued that U.S. involvement in conflicts doesn't amount to “hostilities” or otherwise fall under the resolution. If lawmakers disapprove, their options include pressuring the executive branch to seek an authorization of military force, trying to get Congress at large to formally order the president to withdraw, withholding funding or stepping up congressional oversight.

For Yemen, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy is looking at introducing legislation within weeks that would authorize the U.S. campaign against the Houthis under set limits on the time, geographical range and scope. The plan has not been previously reported.

Murphy and other Democrats in Congress have expressed concern about the effectiveness of the U.S. attacks on the Houthis, the risk of further regional escalation and the lack of clarity on the administration's end game. They've asked why the administration sees it as the U.S. military’s mission to protect a global shipping route.

“This is ‘hostilities’.' There’s no congressional authorization for them,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on obtaining congressional authorization for the U.S. strikes on the Houthis. “And it’s not even close."

Asked this week what happens now that the 60 days are up, Kaine said it would be premature for Congress to consider authorizing the U.S. action against the Houthis without understanding the strategy.

Idaho Sen. James Risch. the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had no such doubts.

“I believe that the president has all the power that he needs under the Constitution to do what he’s doing in Yemen,” Risch said this week.

But it's Gaza, and the soaring death toll among Palestinian civilians, that has stirred the most protests from Congress. The Israel-Hamas war also has a far higher profile in U.S. domestic politics. While many Americans are dead-set against any cut in military support to Israel, a growing number of Democrats have begun withholding votes from Biden in state presidential primaries to demand more U.S. action for Gaza's trapped people.

Some in Congress were frustrated early in the war that the administration bypassed congressional review to rush additional military aid to Israel, by declaring a national security emergency.

A presidential order negotiated with Senate Democrats requires Israel to certify in writing by March 25 that it will abide by international law when using U.S. weapons in Gaza and will not impede humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians — or face a possible cut in U.S. military aid.

The United Nations has said Israeli restrictions are keeping many aid trucks from getting into Gaza. The U.S. this month began air drops and work on a sea route to get more food and other vital goods into the territory.

Some in Congress are pushing the administration to cut the military aid now, under existing federal law requiring countries that get U.S. military support to use it in compliance with international law, including by allowing humanitarian access to civilians in conflicts.

A group of Senate Democrats and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote Biden this week that it was already plain that Israel was obstructing humanitarian aid to Gaza. They urged him to cut military aid immediately, absent a turnaround by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, under existing laws on U.S. foreign assistance.

“I'm still flabbergasted” that the administration hasn't acted, Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, one of the senators pushing hardest on the point, said.

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Associated Press writer Farnoush Amiri contributed.