WASHINGTON (CN) – The House voted Thursday to rein in President Donald Trump’s war-making powers against Iran, a move that lacks teeth but puts support on the record for Congress’ authority to approve military action.
Known as a concurrent resolution, the measure terminates the use of U.S. military force in Iran and states that the president can only use force to engage Iran if first authorized by Congress. It was introduced by Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst who served three tours in Iraq.
The resolution is mostly symbolic because it will never land on Trump’s desk. Had House Democrats opted for a joint resolution instead – which requires a presidential signature – it would have certainly been vetoed.
The bill, which passed in a 224-194 vote Thursday afternoon, states unequivocally that the U.S. has an “inherent right to self defense” but that it is in the national interest to preserve partnerships with Iraq, Iran and other nations in the Middle East.
In order to avoid escalation in the region, the resolution states the executive branch must be tempered by Congress.
“The War Powers Resolution requires the President to consult with Congress in every possible instance before introducing U.S. armed forces into hostilities,” it states. “Congress has not authorized the President to use military force against Iran.”
The path to Thursday’s vote began on Jan. 3, when Trump ordered an airstrike against Qasem Soleimani, the top general of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. last April.
The White House has been cagey about its plans for the attack that killed Soleimani and has not clarified what it has in mind for the continuing fallout, which included Iran missile strikes on a U.S. base in Iraq this week.
Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, emerged flabbergasted after a closed door intelligence session between the White House and lawmakers on Wednesday.
In an NPR interview Thursday, Lee revealed administration officials were unable or unwilling to identify points at which Congress would be tapped for authorization, including if the administration hypothetically wished to target and kill Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“The fact that there was nothing but a refusal to answer that question was perhaps the most deeply upsetting thing to me in that meeting,” Lee said, although he went on to praise Trump in a later interview Thursday on Fox News.
Slotkin’s resolution explicitly says its passage should not be construed as a means to prevent Trump from using force against terrorist networks like the Islamic State group if necessary.
During debate on the House floor Thursday, Representative Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the administration’s unilateral decision to kill Soleimani had no legal justification, whether an inherent risk was present or not.
“His actions made America less safe,” Takano said of Trump. “We must not yield to the voices who say war is the only answer.”
An Iran military commander on Thursday promised “harsher revenge” against America, despite Trump saying just a day earlier that the U.S. was on a path of de-escalation.
Representative Mark Walker, R-N.C., said threats from Iran have persisted for 40 years. Soleimani’s presence in Baghdad and his meetings with Shia militia forces gave Republicans “every cause to think that the more nefarious behavior is coming,” he said.
“Obviously we take them seriously…when we signed the Iranian [Nuclear] Deal, the very people who signed the deal were part of groups who chanted ‘death to America’ and ‘death to Israel,’” Walker said.
However, Representative Thomas Massie, R-Ky., saw things differently as he urged fellow Republicans to approve the resolution.
“We need to debate our involvement in Afghanistan and then bring our troops home. We need to debate our involvement in Iraq and then bring our troops home. We certainly don’t need another war and if we do go to war, it needs to be with the blessing of the people,” Massie said, adding that Slotkin’s resolution is in line with the “vision” of America’s founders.
Another Republican, Matt Gaetz of Florida, joined Massie Thursday.
Gaetz, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus and has remained one of Trump’s most staunch defenders since his election, said he takes a backseat to no one when defending the president but thinks it “ludicrous” for members to vote against the resolution.
“I support the killing of Soleimani. I support Trump. But I do not support forever wars,” Gaetz said.
A resolution to limit Trump’s war powers is also in the works in the Senate. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine introduced one directing the president to remove U.S. military forces from Iran within 30 days unless war is declared by Congress. A vote on that joint resolution could come as soon as next week.
Referenced in Thursday’s House bill, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 was born from a war-weary public that witnessed decades of U.S. presidents deploying military force around the world without congressional authorization.
President Harry Truman deployed forces to fight in the Korean War under the auspice of “police action” permitted by the United Nations. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson each sent troops to into combat without a formal war declaration.
Then, under President Richard Nixon, when it was revealed his administration carried out the covert Operation Menu to bomb Viet Cong bases in Cambodia from 1969 to 1970, Congress could bear no more.
The War Powers Act was wrestled over for three years before being enacted in 1973. The bill said any forces engaged in conflict outside of the U.S. “shall be removed by the president if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution.”
Nixon bristled and vetoed it, arguing the resolution was a violation of executive powers that existed in the U.S. for almost 200 years, but Congress ultimately overrode his veto.
At the time, the New York Times dubbed the rebuke one of “great significance.” It was a reflection of Nixon’s “low political estate,” reporter Richard Madden wrote, but it indicated too that lawmakers were exasperated with Nixon’s borderline tyrannical interpretation of his constitutional authority.
Representative Michael Burgess, R-Texas, defended Trump’s actions Thursday but offered some deference to checks and balances.
“The Constitution grants Congress power to declare war. The Constitution also designates the president as commander in chief of the armed forces. This sets up a conflict,” Burgess said. “The courts have not delineated the boundaries of these authorities or determined gaps between them that would either deny power to a president or to Congress.”
Representative Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., told Courthouse News on Thursday she felt the main point of contention between Republicans and Democrats was not over war powers, but rather over believing statements from U.S. intelligence officials who have said the killing of Soleimani was prudent.
Lesko said the continuing resolution did not assert congressional authority as Democrats have called for.
“This is just another partisan, pushing through statement. It has no teeth, it’s not going through the normal process,” she said. “If they really are serious about exerting Congress’ authority over going into war, they would go through the process that’s already constructed statutorily in the [War Powers Resolution].”
While lawmakers were not notified of the Soleimani strike beforehand, Lesko said she felt Trump didn’t need to inform members of Congress of any similar military actions.
“No, are you kidding? The way that this place leaks around here?” Lesko said. “Iran would know about it before we attacked them.”
War powers have always been contentious in Washington. Even after Congress’ stance against Nixon, former President Ronald Reagan flouted the law when he took military action in El Salvador in 1981 without congressional approval. President Bill Clinton ignored Congress too when allowing U.S. troops to linger in Kosovo beyond the legally permitted 60-day limit.
During the George W. Bush administration, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq Resolution. It gave Bush authority to use force as he felt was “necessary and appropriate.” It was not, however, a formal declaration of war.
Former President Barack Obama too found himself at odds with the War Powers Resolution in 2011 when he used military force in Libya without congressional approval.
A formal declaration of war has not been made since World War II. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have only been authorized by congressional resolution.