WASHINGTON — For European allies worried about President Donald Trump’s America First rhetoric, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and visiting lawmakers came to Europe to point out that Congress is a co-equal branch of government.
On Tuesday, Pelosi and a group of House Democrats spoke in Brussels after the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where she met with members of the Belgian government and officials from the European Union.
“We’re not a parliamentary government even though we’re parliamentarians,” Pelosi said at a news conference. “We have Article 1, the legislative branch, the first branch of government, co-equal to the other branches and we have asserted ourselves in that way.”
Her comments came as the largest congressional delegations yet visited the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and, days earlier, the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering world leaders. At both events, lawmakers held multiple meetings with leaders from foreign governments, the NATO alliance and the European Union.
At Munich, Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said, "Congress does much more than be a commentary on the foreign policy of the administration. It’s evidenced by the fact that there are 55 of us here.
“We’re not just making a statement, but in and out of these bilateral [meetings], I assure you that a bunch of work is getting done. We legislate and appropriate in areas not only in our portfolio but in ways that effect a lot of the countries here. Congress is fully engaged,” Turner said.
Assessments of transatlantic tensions at Munich ranged from “powerful subtext" to an “open and angry.” While German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s defense of the Western alliance was met with a standing ovation, Vice President Mike Pence’s campaign rally-style exhortations that allies abandon the Iran nuclear deal and meet their defense spending commitments both fell flat.
Perhaps in a nod to the 2020 presidential election and a possible change, the lineup featured former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential candidate. He pledged support to NATO and the EU, arguing it was in America’s interest to lead internationally. “We will be back,” he said to his own standing ovation.
The Democratic Party’s new majority in the House has shifted the balance of power such that Democrats credibly defied Trump for six weeks over border security funding—and were able to present an alternative voice in Europe.
In Brussels, Pelosi pointed the House’s passage of a resolution in January meant to bar Trump from withdrawing the U.S. from NATO as a product of Democratic leadership (even though the House also reaffirmed U.S. support of NATO under Pelosi’s Republican predecessor, Paul Ryan, in 2018).
"I don't think that there's any difference between Democrats and Republicans on our relationship with NATO. This is not partisan in any way,” Pelosi told reporters.
Republicans touring Europe also asserted themselves—to warn the Trump administration off any plans for rapid withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. Breitbart and The Washington Post reported that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan got an earful in a private meeting with more than a dozen lawmakers, particularly from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Graham told reporters he let Shanhan know the administration’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria by the end of April, “the dumbest f---ing idea I’ve ever heard.”
“Well, if the policy is going to be that we are leaving by April 30, I am now your adversary, not your friend,” Graham said he told Shanahan.
Graham reportedly launched into a list of consequences he feared would result from a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Syria without a follow-up plan: The Islamic State would return, Turkey would attack Kurdish forces, Iran would gain the advantage.
By Thursday, the administration reportedly said it would leave 200 troops in Syria as an international stabilizing force, which Graham lauded and appeared to claim as a victory. At Munich, he had pitched a similar idea along with a “safe zone” to guard against a conflict between Turkey and Kurdish forces.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, who met with Ghani along with other U.S. lawmakers, told reporters during Munich the White House ought not to pursue a large pullout of U.S. troops, absent better progress in peace talks. Both are Republicans.
Even Democrats skeptical of U.S. military intervention offered similar criticism. Munich hosted a late night panel Feb. 16 about Congress and national security that featured Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a member of the House Homeland Security, Budget and Judiciary committees. The U.S. needs to engage allies, “when we make major decisions such as Syria and Afghanistan,” she said.
“Congress has to be the adult in the room,” Jackson Lee said. “I’ve been on the side of opposing the Iraq War extensively, and questioned Syria, but I do believe [in] the responsibility of Congress for checks and balances. Precipitous withdrawals that impact our allies is not an adult way to perform.”
Beside Jackson Lee sat Turner, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and former acting assistant secretary of defense, and Sen. Chris Coons, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. U.S. lawmakers who came to Munich, they said, wanted to show the world there is another branch of government, and it values alliances.
“There were many senators and House members that, given the current context, felt called to invest the time and energy to be here,” said Coons, D-Del. “You have people who are really far apart in our domestic politics saying the same thing about the value of NATO, the transatlantic relationship, our determination to stay with you going forward in our security commitments and the value commitments that hold us together.”
While Congress often stumbles on budgeting, Jackson Lee emphasized that House Democrats have embraced Congress’s oversight role, with investigations into the executive branch and the 2016 presidential election.
“We have the power, we need to use it,” said Jackson Lee.
Beyond the reassurance tour, how far will Congress actually go to check this commander-in-chief?
Slotkin, D-Mich., said there’s an appetite in the new Congress to update the post-9/11 authorizations of the use of military force, an issue mired in partisan gridlock for years. Republican lawmakers have had an expansive view of executive power, while Democrats for the most part have wanted to rein it way in, with no easy middle ground.
“I acknowledge there’s debate, but we owe it to the forces fighting these wars to actually power through the debate and get something done,” said adding: “If we are sending them into war, then Congress can negotiate a new AUMF.”
The test is now. Days after Slotkin, Coons, Turner and Jackson Lee affirmed Congress must assert itself before the executive branch takes any military action against Iran, The Washington Times reported that Trump administration officials see coordination in Syria between Tehran and al Qaeda—which could be used to justify strikes against Iran.
According to Politico, national security adviser John Bolton has promised Turkish officials that a residual American force at the Syrian base al Tanf would remain a hedge against Iran. The problem is that’s not sanctioned by Congress, Slotkin said.
“That is not in any version of the AUMF that we have,” Slotkin said. “It’s not that I don’t want to go after Iranians. I’m a Shia militia expert by training. But that is not authorized.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.