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Congress Confronts Its Powerlessness on Iran

January 9, 2020, 2:49 PM UTC

President Donald Trump not only failed to inform congressional leaders before ordering a strike in Iraq that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, he later said that his tweets counted as notification to Congress of any future military action against Iran, a country that the United States is not at war with.

For House Democrats, it was the latest sign that their constitutional power to declare war had eroded to a humiliating nadir.

In response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Wednesday that Democrats would be voting Thursday on a War Powers Resolution, a constitutionally contentious and largely untested Vietnam-era law, in an attempt to limit Trump from further military escalation on Iran. The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), terminates the use of U.S. forces against Iran, except absent a congressional authorization or to defend against an imminent armed attack. 

Pelosi added that Democrats would consider another measure sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) to prohibit funding for a war in Iran, and a separate measure to repeal the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force against Iraq, which the Trump administration has cited as legal basis for the strike against the Iranian leader in Iraq.

“We expect we are going to take some action in the near term, with respect to demanding that the President follow the Constitution and follow the War Powers Act,” said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at a briefing on Wednesday. “And before he takes action, which is not defensive and not responsive to an imminent threat, that he seek and receive the approval of the Congress.”

How effective Democrats would be in changing the President’s behavior, however, remained an open question as it was not lost on members of Congress how much their power had been weakened in the face of increasingly expansive presidential authority.

The War Powers Resolution was passed by Congress after it never declared war in Korea or Vietnam, but administrations have said since that it has not applied in various military missions, such as the 2011 Libya intervention.

The Slotkin measure, a concurrent resolution, would not go to President Trump for signature should it pass both Houses, and therefore, it would have questionable constitutional force.

“War Powers has never been a check, that’s part of the problem. we’re being disregarded by one President after another, and I think it’s time to put a stop to it,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Fortune.

However, Khanna, the California Democrat, pointed to the Trump administration stopping the Pentagon’s refueling of Saudi-led jets in the War in Yemen after both Houses of Congress passed a joint resolution under the War Powers Act—that did not become law after Trump vetoed it—as proof that the law does still work. “We’ve seen that this administration does respond to congressional action, especially if it’s bipartisan,” he told reporters.

The Slotkin resolution was expected to pass but gain few, if any, Republican votes in the House. A similar joint resolution invoking the War Powers Act on Iran introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), gained the support of two libertarian-minded Republican senators, Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah), meaning it would be very close to passage in the GOP-controlled Senate, as it is expected to be voted on next week.

Classified briefings held by the administration Wednesday on the Soleimani killing angered many lawmakers, who doubted that the administration made the case that the threat from Soleimani was imminent, and said it only strengthened their efforts to act to curtail the President’s war powers. Lee, the Utah Republican senator, said that the briefing was “insulting” and “probably the worst briefing at least on a military issue I’ve seen.”

House members said that the administration was basing its legal case, which remains classified, on the President’s executive power to act in self defense under the Constitution, and the 2002 Iraq War authorization.

“They’re basing what their doing on Article II and the 2002 authorization and it doesn’t apply today,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told reporters. “We have talked for a long time about changing that; and this is as good of a reason as any.”

Democrats were starting first, however, with a largely symbolic resolution that they hoped would start a debate. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, said that the hope for the measure was to “force action on the Senate.” 

“If you had a War Powers Resolution that has to be signed by the President, I’m not sure Donald Trump would sign a War Powers Resolution,” he said. “I think the question is what’s the best way to force the debate in the Senate.”

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