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‘A Complete Overload on the System.’ Congress Focuses on Iran and Impeachment as Healthcare Takes a Backseat

January 8, 2020, 3:17 PM UTC

As tensions between Iran and the United States intensify, as well as confusion over U.S. military strategy, Congress once again finds itself facing an overwhelming crowded agenda and tough decisions about what to prioritize—this time during a presidential election year. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Monday that Democrats would introduce and likely vote on a war powers resolution around Iran before the end of this week. The resolution comes in response to President Donald Trump’s recently ordered airstrike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani.

The resolution would require congressional approval before any more military action in the region take place. It’s expected to pass the House, but flounder in the Senate. 

Can Trump declare war without Congress?

While the power to declare war technically “resides in Congress,” the last time the Legislative Branch actually used that constitutional authority was during World War II. Since then, the president has slowly grabbed more wartime power.

Fed up with the power grab during the Vietnam War, Congress passed 1973’s War Powers Resolution which only allows the president to order military force:

  • If Congress has approved of an attack
  • If Congress has declared war
  • If there has been a national emergency “created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

The bill also requires the president to give Congress written notice of any military action within 48 hours of its occurrence and to consult with Congress before engaging in warfare “in every possible instance.”

Any debate around Trump’s airstrike will likely be about whether there was any real national emergency and whether he purposefully ignored his mandate to consult with Congress beforehand.

The president, however, has the ability to veto any legislation passed under the War Powers Resolution, meaning that Congress and Senate need a two-thirds supermajority to overturn any military action enacted by the president. In 2018, Trump successfully vetoed legislation passed under the resolution that would have stopped him from sending aid to Saudi Arabia for their fight against Yemen.

No Congress has ever been able to get the supermajority to overturn a president’s veto and order a stop to military action ordered by the commander-in-chief.

A number of other Representatives and Senators are working on provisions that deal with the War Powers Resolution that they’re asking the House to consider.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in conjunction with Progressive Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), has introduced a bill to defund any military action against Iran that doesn’t receive Congressional approval first.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that she had urged Congress to consider her resolution to limit the President’s ability to conduct war to a maximum of two years.

“It is Congress’s constitutional duty to declare war,” said Gillibrand in a statement. “Congress has abdicated that duty over the last several years and it needs to retake that responsibility so we can keep America safe.”

The various wartime restrictions come as the House remains in a deadlocked battle over the rules of the forthcoming Senate impeachment trial of President Trump.

Articles of impeachment, trade, Roe v. Wade

Pelosi has been withholding the articles of impeachment from Senate in an effort to exert pressure on Republican leadership to allow for witnesses to be questioned during the trial.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that he had the votes to begin hearings without having the articles in hand, sending Pelosi into an emergency meeting with her leadership team that evening to figure out her next steps.

Either way, it is incredibly unlikely the Senate will kick Trump out of office.

“This represents a complete overload on the system,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. “There have already been hundreds of House bills passed with no action in the Senate, and now you can really kiss those goodbye. Things are already gridlocked. They already can’t handle what’s on their plate.”  

Congress began the year with promises to tackle a bevy of important legislative issues ahead of the 2020 election including a trade deal, regulating prescription drug prices and negotiating the 2021 budget. Republicans meanwhile, presented their own legislative initiative: A request for the Supreme Court of the United States to reconsider their ruling in 1973’s Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion federally.  

Bannon now doubts those Democratic initiatives will be addressed.

“The possibility of war and the impeachment trial is all Congress can deal with, and I’m not even sure they can deal with those two things,” he said. “This is going to suck all of the oxygen out of Washington.”

Impeachment vs. healthcare

After months of impeachment hearings, public perception remains largely unchanged about whether Trump should be removed from office for his alleged crimes.

According to an amalgamation of national polls by FiveThirtyEight, about 45% of all Americans supported removing the president on Oct. 1, 2019. The latest polls, on Jan. 3, 2020 found that 47% of Americans wanted Trump out, a change that falls within the margin of error. The polls also fall cleanly along party lines. 

Early polling shows a similar split between Americans who support Trump’s strike on Soleimani. A HuffPo-YouGov poll found that 43% of voters approved of the strikes and 38% disapproved, with 19% still unsure.

“This is going to be a divisive issue and a big argument in Congress,” said Bannon. But, like impeachment, the debates will be unlikely to move public perception, he added. 

Also, like impeachment, any bills passed by the Democratically-controlled House already have their fate sealed: They’ll likely fade away in the Republican-led Senate. 

Bannon, who just recently returned from spending time on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire said that presidential candidates aren’t spending much time talking about impeachment or even about limiting Trump’s ability to order strikes in Iran.

“They’re still focusing mostly on healthcare because they know that’s what’s driving voters,” he said. “When they make these appearances in early primary states, they’re not hearing about impeachment, they’re hearing about people struggling to stay afloat with medical debt.” 

An October study by Beacon Research/Guardian found that the plurality of voters, at 28%, said controlling the cost of healthcare was their top priority. 

“I think Pelosi is thinking that the next President will be a Democrat with a bold healthcare plan, and until then,  inaction on healthcare hurts the GOP more anyway,” said Bannon.

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