Republicans who have broken with Trump over his past efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East have cheered his decision to kill Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, blasting critics as being soft on terrorism. But to the many Democrats and few Republicans who have sought to curtail Trump’s military authority, the dispute isn’t whether Soleimani was a worthwhile target, but whether the administration should have approached Congress before greenlighting the drone strike in Baghdad that led to his demise.
“No one is mourning the loss of Soleimani. That’s not the issue,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said on the floor before the vote. “Congress needs to take action now to make it clear that the president does not have the unilateral authority to take American into another costly war, in the Middle East or anywhere else.”
Those most frustrated by Trump’s end run around Congress have chastised the administration for flouting lawmakers’ war powers, as outlined in the Constitution. Between the House and Senate, those concerns have resulted in several resolutions and bills — a diverse if somewhat disjointed approach to address the administration’s shifting explanations for why the Soleimani strike was warranted.
Some officials have argued that the Soleimani strike was conducted in self-defense — to protect U.S. troops stationed in Iraq against an imminent attack. Trump, among others, has asserted it was retaliation for deaths caused by proxy terrorist groups that Soleimani’s forces supported. The president has singled out the recent killing of a U.S. contractor in Iraq, a death U.S. officials attribute to a militia group backed by Iran.
The first proposal the House passed Thursday, from Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), would prevent Trump from tapping federal funds for military action against Iran without Congress’s approval, except in cases of self-defense or to prevent an imminent strike. It passed by a vote of 228 to 175, with four Republicans supporting it.
The second, from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), would repeal the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed to facilitate the 2003 Iraq invasion but that administrations have used since then to justify various hostilities — including Soleimani’s killing. It passed by a vote of 236 to 166, with 11 Republicans supporting it.
Approval of the two measures follows efforts in the House and Senate earlier this month to pass war-powers resolutions seeking to restrict Trump’s ability to strike Iran. But the one that passed the House on a vote of 224 to 194 is, by itself, nonbinding, and the Senate’s version — though it has the votes to pass — has been sidelined while that chamber conducts Trump’s impeachment trial.
No Iran measure before Congress has the votes to overcome a presidential veto.
Trump has offered mixed messages on the drive by Democrats to repeal the original Iraq War authorization, first writing Wednesday on Twitter that House lawmakers should “vote their HEART,” and reminding them there are fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and that the levels are coming down.
But he followed that sentiment of seeming encouragement several hours later with tweets blasting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democrats for trying “to take away authority Presidents use to stand up to other countries and defend AMERICANS.”
“Democrats want to make it harder for Presidents to defend America, and stand up to, as an example, Iran,” he wrote in another tweet.
Trump has frequently advocated reducing or eliminating the U.S. military presence in Iraq and elsewhere around the Middle East, often clashing with members of his administration and the bulk of the Republican Party.
Many Republicans say they believe a withdrawal will embolden terrorists and leave the forces that allied with the United States to fight the Islamic State and other such groups susceptible to retaliation. And Republican support for measures to limit Trump’s actions similarly appears to be on the decline. The measures the House passed Thursday closely mirror two that passed that chamber last year as amendments to the annual defense bill. But fewer Republicans joined Democrats this time around to support them.
On Thursday, House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Republican Michael McCaul (Tex.) excoriated the measures as irresponsible legislation that would undermine the country’s counterterrorism missions abroad. He also blasted Democrats for bringing up the measures as amendments to a bill that would grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the U.S. Merchant Mariners of World War II — accusing them of “exploiting our greatest generation” and “hijacking” the bill. The addition of the Iran measures, he said, would complicate the bill’s fate in the Senate.
Democrats insisted the measures are a necessary check on the president, whose national security advisers have indicated they do not feel obligated to draw Congress into such decisions.
“There is no blank check for war,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said Thursday. “The president must come to the Congress. . . . Only Congress can declare war, not the president.”
Yet according to senators who met behind closed doors with officials this week, the administration is still refusing to make any commitment to consult Congress before ordering such strikes in the future. Those senators have also complained to administration officials that they should stop insisting on holding only closed-door Iran briefings if they are not going to share classified information with lawmakers.
Engel announced this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will soon appear on Capitol Hill for a hearing about Iran. The date has not been set.