Senate Declines to Rein in Trump’s War Power

The Kaine-Udall amendment has met its predictable end.

An attempt by Senate Democrats to stop President Trump from abusing the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force to attack Iran has met its expected demise.

Senators blocked an effort on Friday to restrict President Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran, handing a victory to Republicans and the White House.  

Forty Republican senators have voted against the proposal from Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Tom Udall (N.M.), which would block the president from using funding to carry out military action without congressional authorization. An additional nine GOP senators, viewed as no votes, are not expected to vote.

Though the vote remains open, the opposition and absences blocks supporters from being able to muster the 60 yes votes they needed to get the amendment added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In a round of unusual procedural maneuvering, senators passed the mammoth defense bill on Thursday, but agreed to add the Kaine-Udall proposal retroactively if they could secure the votes. 

Republicans, however, had appeared confident that they would be able to block it from getting added to the bill. If every Democrat supported the amendment they would still need to pick up 13 GOP senators, a heavy lift with the opposition from leadership. GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) broke ranks and supported the amendment. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued that Democrats were playing politics because of their opposition to Trump’s administration, and predicted it would be defeated.  

“None of our Democratic friends would be supporting this if there was a Democratic president,” McConnell said. “This is clearly within the bounds of measured response that have not been micromanaged by Congress in the past.” 

He added that he “would love to have some Democratic support, but I think this is an example of the affliction with Trump derangement syndrome.”

The Hill, “Senate rejects attempt to curb Trump’s Iran war powers

As stated at the outset, this is hardly a surprising outcome. McConnell and company weren’t going to hand Democrats a victory and Trump a defeat, regardless of the merits of the issue. Kaine and Udall are clearly in the right in wanting to assert Congressional authority over a decision to enter into an unnecessary war with Iran.

That said, even if the measure had somehow passed, it would have had no teeth. There’s literally nothing Congress can do to prevent any President from launching military attacks, short of taking away the funding for a standing force.

The House could theoretically impeach a President after the fact and the Senate could theoretically vote to remove him from office pursuant to said impeachment. But the President can do pretty much what he wants up until then.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Iran, Military Affairs, Presidency, U.S. Constitution, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I can’t even…

  2. Yet another data point illustrating the “checks and balances” does not work the way it is often taught.

    (As well as a data point that shows party allegiance is more important than institutional prerogatives)

  3. Other than the power of the purse and impeachment Congress has very little power to control the President’s actions in this area. The War Powers Act is essentially meaningless since there are no consequences for a President who ignores it, as every President since Nixon has done, and the Courts are never going to do something like issue an injunction against an overseas military operation. It’s political question beyond the power of the courts to adjudicate.

    This has all been self-evident, really, from the day that Jefferson sent the Navy off to confront the Barbary pirates.

  4. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am not sure what structural change could be made to address the issue of Executive overreach when it comes to the use of military force.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yet another data point illustrating the “checks and balances” does not work the way it is often taught.

    (As well as a data point that shows party allegiance is more important than institutional prerogatives)

    Yup. Ambition checking ambition ain’t what it was cracked up to be.

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I am not sure what structural change could be made to address the issue of Executive overreach when it comes to the use of military force.

    Historically, Congress dominated because the Navy was small and the Army smaller. But that condition hasn’t prevailed since at least 1950.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    As should be needless to say, I’m sorry that the Congress does not act to rein in executive power in this area. The Constitutional powers of the presidency with respect to the military and diplomacy are great enough without the Congress’s expanding them through open-ended monsters like the AUMF.

    But note how little attention the areas of the president’s greatest responsibilities, i.e. military, foreign policy, and direction of the executive branch, are receiving in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates. It’s no wonder we have such lousy foreign policy.

  7. What exactly can Congress do to rein in the Executive with respect to this area of policy, though?

    Other than the power of the purse and impeachment, I don’t see it.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    But note how little attention the areas of the president’s greatest responsibilities, i.e. military, foreign policy, and direction of the executive branch, are receiving in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates. It’s no wonder we have such lousy foreign policy.

    It’s true. Republicans talked a lot about foreign policy during the Cold War but it’s pretty much all domestic, all the time these days. Occaisionally, an anti-war fervor will set in for a single election. But we seem to have forgotten we’re even at war; it’s just background noise now.

  9. @Dave Schuler:

    But note how little attention the areas of the president’s greatest responsibilities, i.e. military, foreign policy, and direction of the executive branch, are receiving in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debates. It’s no wonder we have such lousy foreign policy.

    It is, unfortunately, the case the foreign policy does not resonate with the public.

  10. @Doug Mataconis:

    What exactly can Congress do to rein in the Executive with respect to this area of policy, though?

    Other than the power of the purse and impeachment, I don’t see it.

    I was making a point about how people often talk about exec-legis relations vice how they actually work.

    And an assertive Congress could do a lot, but they ain’t gonna (especially not with a Senate controlled by the president’s party, or, indeed, by a Senate with at least 41 seats held by the president’s party).

    The issue is less that Congress lack tools, it is that the structure of our system almost entirely precludes them from using them.

  11. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    In our day and age, IMO the question is: what incentive does Congress have to reign in the president’s power? (or Trump’s)

    We find the opposition party may have such an incentive, but the president’s party does not.

    As has been pointed out here many times, party affiliation wins over institutional prerogatives. The solution for that, would be to amend the Constitution in some way. But 1) that would be impossible for the same reasons stated above, and 2) even an iron-clad amendment mandating an impeachment vote if the president breaks its provisions, would only work if the party in power actually bothers to exercise their responsibilities, either to impeach or to remove.

    In the end that’s the flaw in every law.

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kathy:

    In the end that’s the flaw in every law.

    I’d recommend trying to find a copy of John Hasnas’s law review article “The Myth of of the Rule of Law”

  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I am not sure what structural change could be made to address the issue of Executive overreach when it comes to the use of military force.

    An Atatürk style government where the military exists essentially as a fourth branch of government independent of the executive branch?

  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is, unfortunately, the case the foreign policy does not resonate with the public.

    As the saying goes, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

  15. gVOR08 says:

    The Dems tried to rein in the Schmuk in Chief’s ability to make war on a whim and the Senate Rs want to preserve it, just because Trumpsky has an R after his name. This should be a major story. The linked story is from The Hill. I don’t recall seeing anything in WAPO or NYT.

    Pelosi and the House are passing what should be popular bills and demonstrating that Lord Valdemort, AKA McConnell, and the Senate Rs are killing every good thing. And nobody knows it because the supposedly liberal MSM don’t feel it’s worth mentioning. FTFNYT did more to elect Trump than Putin and Comey. And they’ll do it again.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    An Atatürk style government where the military exists essentially as a fourth branch of government independent of the executive branch?

    The military without significant civilian control? No thanks…

  17. Stormy Dragon says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Not saying it’s a good idea as it creates other problems, but it did seem to prevent the executive from misusing the military for a long time.