One week after President Donald Trump launched ― then recalled ― a military strike on Iran, Congress is expected to vote Friday on a measure that would force Trump to seek authorization before any future military action. If it passes, it would be a rare step by Congress to address the largely unchecked presidential power to declare war in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Earlier this week, Democrats threatened to block a major defense appropriations bill, a dramatic escalation of congressional efforts to rein in an erratic president who has threatened Iran with “obliteration” on Twitter and stacked a national security team with ideologues who have spent their careers advocating regime change in the Middle East.
The push by Senate Democrats, and some Republicans, for the amendment is part of a broader concern among lawmakers that the Trump administration has put the U.S. on course for conflict. Trump’s maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and aggressive military posturing has spurred a crisis between Washington and Tehran, including Trump authorizing last week’s military strike that he claimed to have aborted with only minutes to spare.
“Everything about this administration’s behavior has moved us closer and closer and closer to war with Iran, since the day that they tore up the JCPOA,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a co-sponsor of the amendment, told HuffPost, referring to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The amendment specifically requires Trump to seek congressional approval before engaging in hostilities with Iran, although it allows for military forces to defend themselves in the event of an attack. The amendment’s proponents call it a way of taking back power from the executive branch, and have urged bipartisan support of the measure.
“After years of abdicating our responsibilities on matters of war, this entire body must stand up,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), another co-sponsor of the amendment, said on the Senate floor Thursday morning.
But although the amendment would increase congressional oversight and signal that lawmakers are concerned about conflict with Iran, the president still retains broad powers that experts say could be used to circumvent the amendment if it passes. The president’s ability to declare a national emergency in the event of an attack on the U.S. could be used as justification for a conflict with Iran, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit government watchdog organization. Trump already used a national emergency declaration earlier this year in order to access border funds that Congress denied him.
It’s also possible Trump would not sign a defense authorization that limited his ability to take military action in Iran. But Senate Democrats appear determined to force the issue. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) held closed-door meetings earlier this week to get Democratic support for the measure and planned to hold the National Defense Authorization Act bill hostage if McConnell did not allow a vote, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the meetings. Schumer insisted that the public would support such a stance and did not want a war with Iran, according to the aide.
Meanwhile, many Republicans have derided the Kaine-Udall bill and backed Trump’s aggressive stance toward Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Thursday called on senators to reject the amendment, saying it would “embolden the ayatollahs.” Given the Republican opposition, the bill has a difficult path to the 60 votes it needs to pass.
The recent standoff with Iran has been building since Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multi-nation 2015 Iran nuclear agreement last year, after long deriding it as the “worst deal ever” and claiming he could secure a better one. The JCPOA deal put strict limits on Iranian nuclear capabilities in exchange for economic relief ― but since breaking the agreement, the U.S. has altered course and imposed heavy sanctions on Iran while threatening it with military action.
Relations between Iran and the U.S. deteriorated further in recent weeks as the Trump administration took an increasingly aggressive stance toward Tehran. National security adviser John Bolton announced in early May that the U.S. was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. The White House also announced the deployment of 1,000 additional troops and repeatedly blamed Iran for the sabotage of foreign oil tankers.
Iran responded to the U.S. pressure with increasingly belligerent actions, including vowing to break its side of the 2015 nuclear deal and surpass the limits of uranium it is allowed to stockpile under the agreement. Critics of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign say that the strategy ― which is driven by longtime advocates of military intervention in Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ― has only increased the likelihood of war and goaded Iran toward conflict.
“Pompeo will sometimes say ― I’ve heard him say it ― that Iranian activities in the region against tankers or others are completely unprovoked,” Kaine said. “That’s BS.”
The crisis nearly escalated into military conflict last Thursday after Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone that it claimed violated its airspace, resulting in Trump authorizing military strikes against Iranian targets later that day. Trump ultimately called off the attack, claiming he changed his mind minutes before the strike. Tensions continued this week, with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani insulting the White House and Trump threatening to use “overwhelming force” if American interests were attacked.
“The United States is involved in diplomatic, economic, rhetorical and military provocations against Iran,” Kaine said, adding that the Trump administration has kept Congress in the dark when it comes to information on Iran. Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he has had to request briefings after finding out information from sources outside the administration.
Trump has flippantly dismissed the likelihood that conflict with a country of over 80 million people would result in devastating loss of life and wider destabilization of the region. This week he claimed he didn’t need an exit strategy for such a conflict and said that “if something would happen, it wouldn’t last very long.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.