WASHINGTON ―The Democratic-led House passed legislation Thursday to repeal the 2002 war authorization for Iraq and to bar funding for military action in Iran, in an effort to reclaim Congress’s war powers amid hostilities between Washington and Tehran.
The action marks the third time in recent months that the House has passed language to limit President Donald Trump’s war powers with respect to Iran. But the plan still faces an uncertain future because of opposition from Senate Republicans and mixed messages from the Trump administration.
The White House initially issued a veto threat on the measures this week, but Trump later offered room for Republicans to vote in favor, tweeting lawmakers should, “vote their HEART.” Twenty-seven Republicans voted to block funding for military action against Iran in July, but only a handful joined Democrats this time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., urged the president to work with Congress to advance a deescalatory path forward―“smart, strong, and strategic action, not the administration’s reckless and rash policies.”
“There is no appetite for war in our country.” Pelosi said in a floor speech ahead of the vote. “We have to be very careful how we engage and protect the American people. This is not about understanding our responsibility and our strength, but as warriors, we need to be peacekeepers. All we’re saying is, let’s do this carefully and not in a way that escalates.”
But Republican leaders argued the legislation would embolden Iran and the Islamic State, and tie Trump’s hands in a dangerous fashion. The House Homeland Security Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mike McCaul, was among Republicans who accused Democrats of avoiding hearings or a sincere conversation with Republicans about modernizing the authorization of the use of military force, or AUMF.
“We owe an updated AUMF to our soldiers who are in Iraq risking our lives for our security. We owe that to our partners and the American people," said McCaul, of Texas. A standalone AUMF repeal, "does not recognize the reality on the ground, that counterterrorism mission in Iraq is ongoing as we debate on the floor as we debate here today.”
Democrats further irked Republicans by raising the two measures in a way that prohibited the Republican minority from a motion to recommit―a tool, used at the last minute to try to amend a bill, which Republicans have used in recent months to force votes that have divided Democrats.
Thursday’s votes fell mostly along party lines. To restrict funding for military action against Iran, 223 Democrats and four Republicans voted “yea,” while 172 Republicans and three Democrats voted “nay.” For 2002 AUMF repeal, 224 Democrats and 11 Republicans voted “yea,” while 164 Republicans and two Democrats voted “nay.”
Since votes in July to add the measures to the 2020 defense policy bill, the language were dropped in negotiations with the Republican-led Senate. Since then, some Trump administration officials have used it to justify the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, though others have cited Article II of the U.S. Constitution.
The House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Mac Thornberry, argued Thursday that under the legislation, the nation would not have been about to carry out the attack against Soleimani, who was planning an imminent attack, according to the president and some administration officials.
“Even if we had perfect intelligence that he was about to kill large numbers of Americans, we’d have to wait until they died first,” said Thornberry, of Texas.
In a closed-door briefing Tuesday on Iran, Democratic senators concerned about the legality of U.S. military action said they were unable to obtain a commitment from State Department officials that the administration would come to Congress for permission to use further military force against Iran.
“It is my sense the administration feels that they have no obligation to come to Congress to declare war, period, that they have all the authorities they need, and that’s pretty shocking to me,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, said Tuesday.
The House previously passed the repeal the 2002 AUMF that was authored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., as well as the separate measure from Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., that would prohibit funding for offensive attacks against or in Iran without congressional approval.
Khanna’s Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz his “yes” vote Thursday as an accurate reflection Trump’s “America first” policies and aversion to costly “endless wars.”
“Instead of wasting our blood and treasure bombing and rebuilding Iraq, let’s rebuild our own great nation. Let’s secure the border with Mexico before we send the next soldier, sailor, airman or Marine to secure Iraq’s border with Iran,” said Gaetz, of Florida. “Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq is not what President Trump wants, it’s not what the American people want, it’s not what the Iraq parliament wants.”
Khanna, ahead of the vote, defended his legislation as doing nothing to restrict the commander in chief to protect American interests or allies.
“If we are hit, he has all the authority to act and not come to Congress for authorization,” Khanna said of the president. “All my amendment says is before we get into another Middle East war, before we waste trillions of dollars again, that we need to come to Congress to authorize that.”
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.