“The American people are very afraid that this president, even if he doesn’t want to start a war, would bumble us into a war,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “If there was ever a time that we should be rising to our constitutional obligation to debate and approve going to war, it’s now.”
The threat of conflict with Iran has overshadowed the annual defense bill debate in the Senate and the House, which is expected to vote on its version of the legislation next month.
The Senate’s 86-to-8 vote suggests there is strong bipartisan support for most of the legislation’s provisions, though the House and Senate are expected to face serious hurdles as they attempt to reconcile differences on nuclear weapons, Trump’s diversion of military resources to the U.S.-Mexico border, and overall Pentagon spending levels.
But the escalating standoff with Iran has presented itself as a more urgent matter, as Democrats seek to assert what authority they can over the commander in chief’s shifting sentiments about whether to counter Iran with airstrikes or other military action.
“Congress should have the guts and the backbone to come here and cast a vote before we order our troops into harm’s way,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who authored the Senate’s Iran amendment with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.). He accused the president of breaking his antiwar campaign promises by potentially exposing the United States to “an unnecessary war that would be catastrophic.”
But Republicans have been reluctant to endorse the effort, arguing that it would send a bad message to the Iranians if Congress appears to be challenging the president’s authority in the midst of a crisis.
“It’s a message to our enemy who wants to destroy us that we have a president who is impotent — that he has no right to even be at the table . . . if he’s reversed by his own Congress, in their eyes,” Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in an interview this week. “I think that the main thing here is the perception . . . the perception is that it’s not the president you deal with, it’s Congress.”
The Iran measure is being considered after the defense bill’s final passage in part because several of the Senate Democrats running for president are in Miami this week, participating in the primary season’s first debates. Yet it will be difficult for proponents of the amendment to secure the 60 votes they will need to clear procedural hurdles, even with the support of all Democrats and a handful of Republicans.
Regardless of how Friday’s vote turns out, Iran and the president’s war powers are expected to be an element of debate as the Senate and the House combine their defense bills, as the House is expected to amend Iran legislation into its defense bill when it takes up the matter next month.
The final product could indicate how willing congressional Republicans will be to permit challenges to Trump’s foreign policy during the 2020 campaign season, in which Trump and many lawmakers — including McConnell — are seeking reelection.
In the past, the GOP has used legislation to openly rebuke Trump over withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and sanction rivals like Russia. This year’s Senate defense bill contains a similar challenge to Trump on North Korea, by imposing mandatory sanctions on any entity that does business with Kim Jong Un’s regime.
But Republicans have been more reticent to challenge Trump when it comes to his moves in the Persian Gulf involving Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Republicans applauded Trump for withdrawing last year from a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, arguing that the pact the Obama administration had negotiated was not stringent enough. But the party is divided over whether military action is a prudent response to Iran’s recent attacks against tanker ships and a U.S. Navy drone.
In recent weeks, the GOP has also resisted bipartisan efforts to restrict arms sales to Iran’s regional nemesis Saudi Arabia that the Trump administration completed by emergency fiat over congressional objections.