The Senate is set to pass a bipartisan resolution this week to limit President Donald Trump’s authority to launch military operations against Iran weeks after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general.
The War Powers resolution, introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), will come to the floor Wednesday with a final expected vote Thursday. While the measure is not likely to garner enough support to overturn a likely Trump veto, its expected passage in the Senate nevertheless illustrates a rare congressional effort to rein in the president’s executive authority.
In addition to all 47 Democrats, the measure so far has support from Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Todd Young of Indiana, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Jerry Moran of Kansas. The Democratic senators running for president are expected to be in Washington for the vote on Thursday, ensuring that the 51-vote threshold for the War Powers resolution will be met.
“The last thing this country should do is rush into or blunder into another war in the Middle East. And no matter who our president is, no president is smart enough to, on their own, make that kind of a decision without deliberation,” Kaine said in an interview. “The logic of the idea just gets more and more persuasive the more time that elapses after 9/11.”
Indeed, Congress has abdicated war-making powers to the executive branch in the years after both chambers adopted authorizations for the use of military force against al Qaeda in 2001 and against Iraq in 2002. The war powers issue rose to prominence yet again last month in the days following Trump’s Jan. 2 order of an airstrike that killed Qassim Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds force and a longtime target of American military operations.
If the War Powers measure is approved by both chambers as expected, it will be the second time such an effort has reached Trump’s desk. Last year, the House and Senate passed a War Powers resolution intended to cut off U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war — the first time both chambers of Congress used the 1973 War Powers Act to constrain presidential authority. Trump vetoed that resolution.
On Wednesday, Trump urged GOP senators to vote against Kaine’s resolution, arguing that it sends “a very bad signal” and “Iran would have a field day.”
“The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party. Don’t let it happen!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Kaine’s bill would require Trump to cease all hostilities targeting Iran within 30 days unless explicitly approved by Congress. He has modified the original language of the resolution to attract Republican support, including nixing references to Trump. The measure — privileged under the War Powers Act — was on hold during the Senate’s three week impeachment trial, which concluded last week.
Like the Yemen vote, Kaine’s effort will expose long-standing foreign policy divisions within the Republican Party. While the vast majority of Senate Republicans share the party’s historically hawkish positions and supported Trump’s decision to take out Soleimani, several GOP senators have teamed up with Democrats in recent years to force votes to rein in presidential war-making powers.
“I think we’ve abdicated our duty to decide whether we should still be at war or not,” said Paul, who has long opposed U.S. interventions in foreign conflicts and has worked with Democrats over the years on war powers issues. “So the War Powers Act vote for me is just an opportunity to discuss whether or not we should still be at war in Afghanistan or Iraq or any of these places.”
“I’m just ensuring that Congress fulfills our article one responsibilities, that’s all this is about,” added Young.
The views of Paul and Young run counter to those expressed by Senate GOP leaders, who have long supported giving the commander-in-chief wide latitude to order military operations abroad.
“Just as we have successfully sent Iran this strong signal of our strength and resolve, a blunt and clumsy War Powers resolution would tie our own hands,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Tuesday. “With China and Russia watching, is it really a good idea to suggest that we’re willing to let a middling power like Iran push us around?”
While Republicans acknowledge the disagreements within their own party, they have sought to portray the GOP senators supporting Kaine’s bill as outliers.
“I know there are some divisions in our conference, but I think the overwhelming majority [of Republicans] will vote against it for unnecessarily tying the hands of the president,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “I mean, we all agree that Congress plays an important role, and we’re not as nimble in actually responding to exigent circumstances.”
Congressional Republicans generally praised Trump for the strike against Soleimani, but Democrats and even some Trump allies questioned the justification for the strike as well as Trump’s authority to carry it out without congressional approval.
Emerging from an all-senators classified briefing on the Soleimani killing last month, Lee said Trump administration officials advised lawmakers to not debate presidential war powers. Lee called the suggestion “insulting and demeaning.”
“The worst briefing I’ve seen — at least on a military issue — in the nine years I've served” in the Senate, Lee said.
White House and Pentagon officials have repeatedly asserted that Trump had the authority to take out Soleimani, pointing to the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force.
Trump himself has expressed disparate views on U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts. While he has campaigned on “ending endless wars,” he has steadfastly resisted congressional efforts to curb U.S. military incursions abroad. Paul, who informally advises Trump on foreign policy and national security matters, has tried to veer the president toward a more non-interventionist posture. But, he added, “We’ve just got to get him some better advisers.”
In the face of a likely veto from the president, Democrats are casting the vote as a symbolic rebuke but also a re-affirmation of Congress’ authority.
“The president will veto it, but it sends a shot across his bow that the majority of the Senate and the majority of the House do not want the president waging war without congressional approval,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “And once again, the American people are overwhelmingly on our side.”
Kaine said that even if Trump vetoes the resolution, the measure could nevertheless influence his behavior and decision-making when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said on Tuesday that he expects the House to vote on the Senate bill later this month.
Sarah Ferris and James Arkin contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the year Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force targeting al Qaeda.