House Passes Defense Spending Bill That Seeks To Limit Trump’s War Powers

The House of Representatives passed a defense spending bill that seeks to limit Presidential authority when it comes to striking Iran and aideing the Saudi war on Yemen.

Late last week, the House of Representatives passed amendments to the defense spending bill that seek to limit the President’s war powers with respect to the Saudi war on Yemen and his latest efforts to increase tensions in the Persian Gulf with Iran:

WASHINGTON — The House gave final approval Friday to a defense bill that would put a liberal stamp on military policy by shackling President Trump’s ability to wage war in Iran and Yemen, restricting the use of military funds at the southwestern border and returning transgender troops to the armed forces.

The $733 billion National Defense Authorization Act was passed along stark party lines — 220 to 197 — with Republicans uniting to oppose the legislation. The defense policy bill has traditionally been a bipartisan exercise, but House Republicans have come out strongly against this year’s version.

The bill still must be reconciled with a Senate version that is considerably less confrontational with the Trump administration. And it is likely Senate negotiators will try to strip out many of the House’s provisions.

In amendment after amendment, lawmakers flexed their oversight muscles, reflecting a growing desire to take back long-ceded authority over matters of war and peace from the executive branch, a reclamation that legislators in both parties contend has grown more urgent amid escalating tensions with Iran.

Passage of the measure with support from liberal Democrats — and no Republicans — could set up another difficult showdown between Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and her left flank. Negotiations with the Senate will almost certainly result in a compromise measure that jettisons many, if not most, of the amendments secured by House liberals. That could set up a final vote that liberals will oppose, leaving Democratic leaders to appeal for Republican votes.

For now, though, the House bill bears the stamp of the resurgent left. The House passed a bipartisan amendment on Friday that would curb Mr. Trump’s ability to authorize a military strike on Iran unless he obtained Congress’s explicit approval. The 251-to-170 vote reflected general war weariness after almost two decades of conflict in the Middle East; 27 Republicans joined all but seven Democrats to approve it.

Last month, Mr. Trump led the United States to the brink of a retaliatory missile strike before abruptly reversing course minutes before launch. On Thursday, three Iranian boats briefly tried to block passage of a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defense.

Mr. Trump said last month he believes he does not need congressional approval to strike Iran. The vote on Friday amounted to a pointed bipartisan rebuttal — led by Representatives Ro Khanna, a liberal Democrat from California, and Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of Mr. Trump’s most strident Republican allies in Congress.

“If my war-hungry colleagues, some of whom have already suggested we invade Venezuela and North Korea and probably a few other countries before lunchtime tomorrow, if they’re so certain of their case against Iran,” Mr. Gaetz said, “let them bring their authorization to use military force against Iran to this very floor. Let them make the case to Congress and the American people.”

Mr. Khanna called the vote “a clear statement from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that this country is tired of endless wars, that we do not want another war in the Middle East.”

The amendment would not restrict the president’s ability to respond to an attack. But Mr. Gaetz’s entreaty failed to persuade the majority of his conference, who castigated the notion of limiting the president’s military options against an antagonistic nation. Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, called the measure “a propaganda win for the Iranian regime and the Houthi allies.”

(…)

Mr. Khanna and Mr. Gaetz also led a successful effort to continue Congress’s monthslong effort to intervene in the Yemen conflict and punish Saudi Arabia for the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Lawmakers voted Thursday to prohibit the administration from using funds to support the Saudi-led military operations — either with munitions or with intelligence — against the Houthis in Yemen, a conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and resulted in a famine that the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Mr. Trump vetoed legislation in April that invoked the War Powers Act to cut off American military support to the campaign.

Another amendment, also passed Thursday, would prevent the Trump administration from using emergency authority to transfer munitions to the kingdom.

It’s unclear whether or not these two amendments will survive now that the spending bill has passed the House of Representatives. From here, the bill goes to the Senate, where both Amendments are likely to face a much more difficult path. While Senate Democrats will likely support both measures, they are unlikely to receive support from more than a handful of Senators. This is especially true of the measure to limit funding for military actions against Iran and likely true of the measure to limit funding for American support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen. In the latter case, of course, the Senate had approved a free-standing resolution to accomplish this but the President vetoed that measure and that veto was not overridden by either the House or the Senate. It is unlikely that the Senate will approve a defense spending bill that includes either measure, then, given that it would risk a Presidential veto of a defense spending bill that everyone wants to see pass.

As Daniel Larison correctly notes, the action of the House of Representatives here makes clear that any military action against Iran must be approved by Congress before it begins:

[T]he amendment confirms that Congress alone has the authority to decide when and where the U.S. goes to war, it rejects specious claims that the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs authorize using force against Iran, and it rejects using government funds for illegal warfare. You couldn’t ask for a more straightforward affirmation of Congress’ constitutional responsibility in matters of war, and you couldn’t ask for a more clear-cut repudiation of unauthorized war against Iran, so the amendment should have passed with overwhelming numbers. The arguments that Republican hawks made in opposition to the amendment were exceptionally weak. The hawkish case against this amendment amounted to accusing supporters of giving “assistance to adversaries,” in the words of Rep. Thornberry of Texas, and complaining that Congress was “handcuffing” the president or “tying the president’s hands.” If the president thinks he has the authority to initiate hostilities against Iran (or any other country) on his own, we should want Congress to be handcuffing him and tying his hands with as many bonds and shackles as they can find. Respecting the Constitution should never be dismissed as handing a foreign government a propaganda win, but that is how the opponents of the amendment chose to describe this effort.

(…)

It is important that Congress move to block funding for illegal war with Iran now. In the past, Congress has been reluctant to cut off funding to an illegal war once it is already underway. By stating clearly before there is an illegal war that Congress won’t provide any funding for it, that should help to discourage any administration from starting such a war.

Larison is, of course, absolutely correct. There is no reasonable interpretation of either the 2001 AUMF that authorized retaliation against al Qaeda for the September 11th attacks or the 2003 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War that would authorize an extended campaign against Iran. This would be true even if the initial justification for striking the Islamic Republic was rooted in an argument that an initial strike was justified for defensive or retaliatory purposes. This effort by Congress to use the power of the purse to drive home that point, even if it ultimately fails, is a welcome sign specifically because it marks another example of Congress at least trying to grab back the power it has ceded to the President in this area over the decades, and especially in the name of the so-called “War On Terror.”

While the Constitution does grant discretion to the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces when it comes to the use of force, that discretion is most certainly not unlimited nor does it extend to the point where the President alone has the authority to drag the country in the war without getting authorization from Congress. Since the Administration seems to believe that the case for action against Iran is so crystal clear then it can and should go to Congress to get the necessary authorization for that action.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Iran, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. dennis says:

    The bill is definitely DOA in the Senate. Republicans will do nothing to impede the raw grab of power Trump has embarked upon. The 2024 election will definitely be interesting, once Trump begins a full-court press for a third term.

  2. Mister Bluster says:

    @dennis:..The 2024 election will definitely be interesting, once Trump begins a full-court press for a third term.

    Not to worry.
    By then Supreme Leader Kim Jong Trump will have deported you back to whever you came from!

  3. DrDaveT says:

    This effort by Congressional Democrats to use the power of the purse to drive home that point, even if it ultimately fails, is a welcome sign

    FTFY.

    I am somewhat bemused that the striking bipartisanship that has characterized the HASC over the past decade was broken not by profligate spending or nuclear weapons, but rather by an attempt to rein in the Infant in Chief.

    Or, I suppose this could just be an accident of timing — that the real change was that the Dems now control the House, so the GOP committee members can stop pretending to be working across the aisle and go back to full-on obstruction.

  4. DrDaveT says:

    From an article at Breaking Defense:

    One of the most august Hill watchers in the national security establishment, John Isaacs of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, offers this perspective: “With Republicans in charge in past years, Democrats were willing to vote for a bill despite disagreeing with many decisions. With Republicans in charge, they permitted many Democratic amendments on the House floor — as long as they weren’t serious or were sure losers,” John Isaacs says. “For example, they would never permit an AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) vote. Now the shoe, or is it the power, is on the other foot and Republicans could not accept total winning. Their hypocrisy shows no bounds.”

    Presumably he meant “knows no bounds” in that last sentence.