WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers are poised to revive the debate over ground rules for a potential conflict with Iran, more than five weeks after President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine says he has the votes to pass a resolution later this week limiting Trump’s ability to pursue a conflict with Iran without congressional approval.
The death of Suleimani increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran earlier this year, reviving a long-running debate over the role the U.S. Congress should play overseeing the president’s ability to manage foreign military operations.
In the nearly two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. lawmakers have revisited the issue of congressional approval for conflicts with little success.
But those efforts gained renewed energy following a Jan. 8 intelligence briefing that congressional Democrats and two Republican senators said did not sufficiently inform Congress of the administration’s strategy in the region.
Republican senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee said the briefing on Trump’s engagement with Iran following the death of Suleimani was among the worst they had been given during their time in the U.S. Senate.
Kaine, a co-sponsor of the resolution, won their support along with votes from Republicans Susan Collins and Todd Young to attain the 51 votes needed to pass the legislation.
In a Jan. 17 Democratic address, Kaine said, “Our Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. And every member of Congress should have the courage to vote and be held accountable for the question of whether a war with Iran or any war is a good idea. The last thing we need to do is to be tricked into another war in the Middle East.”
Kaine added the resolution does not limit the United States’s ability to respond to an imminent threat, but reaffirms Congress’s constitutional right to weigh the costs of an offensive attack.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued the legislation would “severely limit the U.S. military’s operational flexibility to defend itself against threats posed by Iran.”
In a floor speech Tuesday, McConnell said “when Soleimani’s record of brutality was brought to an end, some Washington Democrats immediately suggested President Trump was leading us into World War III. While the Middle East masses rejoiced at the death of a principal architect of Iran’s campaign of terror, Washington elites fretted. But thus far, it appears the Soleimani strike has indeed had the intended effect.”
Senate action on the war powers resolution follows a number of votes in the U.S. House of Representatives aimed at addressing rising tensions with Iran.
In January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged Suleimani was a terrible person, while stressing the importance of congressional debate over war powers.
The House voted nearly along party lines on Jan. 9, passing a non-binding resolution similar to Kaine’s legislation by a 224-194 vote.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat who co-sponsored the legislation, said in a House floor speech, “If our loved ones are going to be sent to fight in any protracted war, the president owes the American public a conversation. The resolution we will be voting on today allows us to start that debate as our founders intended.”
Later in the month, a pair of bills limiting Trump’s military authority passed the House with some Republican support. The first bill limits funding for overseas military action if the president has not sought congressional approval for his or her actions.
The second bill repealed the 2020 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) resolution that was broadly used by presidents of both parties to justify U.S. military actions overseas. Trump used the 2002 AUMF in part to justify his strike against Suleimani, also citing an imminent threat to U.S. personnel overseas.
The White House said Trump would veto both pieces of House-passed legislation if they passed the Republican-majority Senate.
Kaine gained Republican support for his resolution after removing references to Trump and his administration’s policy toward Iran. The Senate war powers resolution is non-binding, but is almost certain to be faced with a White House veto threat if passed.