As Iran Tensions Rise, Congress Moves to Curb Trump’s War Powers

The House Appropriations Committee voted to advance an amendment to a defense spending package on Tuesday that would sunset the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) issued after the 9/11 attacks. The bipartisan legislation would provide Congress with new tools for containing the Trump administration as it meddles in foreign conflicts and stokes military tensions with Iran.

Rep. Barbara Lee and other House Democrats are expected to announce a new push to repeal the 2001 AUMF on Wednesday. The latest effort in Congress to scrap the longstanding authorization comes as lawmakers react to the escalating tensions between Iran and the unpredictable Trump administration, which boiled over on Twitter over the weekend after President Trump warned that Iran would face its “official end” if Tehran provokes the U.S. military.

A rocket had landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Sunday, but it remains unclear whether Iran had anything to do with the attack. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq denounced the attack, and a little-known group with no connection to Iran has claimed responsibility. The White House and Tehran spent the last week trading jabs and engaging in military posturing, although leaders in both countries have said they do not want war.

On Friday, 100 House Democrats urged Trump in a letter to “resist factions” in his administration that are “leading our country down a disastrous path to war” and warned that the White House cannot declare war with Iran without approval from Congress, including under the 2001 AUMF. Administration officials are reportedly building a case to declare Iran a terrorist threat in order to circumvent Congress and launch military strikes under AUMF authority if the administration decides to engage Tehran.

“Madame chair, right now we know that any president can wage war under this outdated, 2001 authorization, and of course President Trump continues down this path, as other presidents have,” Lee told the House Appropriations Committee before the vote on Tuesday.

Lee has already introduced the legislation as a standalone bill. Both bills would sunset the AUMF eight months after passing, giving Congress time to review current areas of military deployment that require congressional authorization, according to Heather Brandon-Smith, the legislative director for militarism and human rights at the pro-peace Friends Committee on National Legislation.

This would include U.S. operations in countries like Iraq and Syria, where the continued presence of U.S. forces is part of a regional strategy to contain Iranian proxies and military influence.

“The eight-month sunset is to give Congress time to properly examine current conflicts and figure out whether to authorize continued participation in any of them,” Brandon-Smith told Truthout in an email. “This would require that the White House be more transparent and give Congress the necessary information to make this decision.”

The standalone legislation, H.R.1274, briefly declares that the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify “broad and open-ended” authorizations for military deployment across the world, and this interpretation is “inconsistent” with Congress’s war-making authority under the Constitution and its original intent in issuing the AUMF within days of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Since then, the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have used the AUMF to justify military action at least 41 times in 19 different countries. The War on Terror has cost trillions of dollars, and U.S. counterterrorism forces have operated in 80 countries across the globe, according to the Costs of War project at Brown University.

Lee, a California Democrat and the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF back in 2001, has led similar efforts in the past, including in 2017, when legislation to sunset and repeal the AUMF was approved in committee only to be stripped from a larger defense spending bill by then-Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican. Isolationist Republicans in the Senate have also made attempts to repeal the AUMF over the years.

However, Brandon-Smith said the AUMF repeal has a good chance of coming up for a vote in the House under the current Democratic majority. This time around, Lee’s AUMF repeal bills are co-sponsored by at least one Republican and dozens of Democrats, including progressive stars, such as Representatives Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal, who are eagerly challenging President Trump on foreign policy.

Trump has found himself caught between his isolationist campaign promises, his desire to look tough on terrorist groups and Iran, and the pressure he faces from war hawks in his administration, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton appears to crave war with Iran and recently raised the specter of sending U.S. forces to Venezuela, where the U.S. is supporting a controversial opposition leader and levying devastating sanctions on a country suffering a political and humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, members of Congress — and Democrats in particular — are facing mounting pressure from veterans and peace activists to contain Trump and curb the seemingly endless cycle of U.S. military engagement overseas by reasserting their constitutional authority to decide when and where the nation goes to war.

Congress has already passed a bipartisan resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s bloody civil war, which caused a vast humanitarian crisis and is broadly seen as a proxy fight over Iran’s sphere of regional influence. Trump vetoed the bipartisan resolution, but it stands as a sharp rebuke of his foreign policy and relationship with the Saudi crown. Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders championed the resolution in the Senate, and the anti-war politics of the Trump era are increasingly shaping the Democratic primary race.

Legislation has also been introduced to prevent Trump from deploying troops to Venezuela and from engaging Iran in the Middle East without congressional approval. While peace activists tend to support any effort by Congress to curb the president’s war powers, Brandon-Smith said lawmakers should focus on the authorization Trump would likely use to justify a war with Iran, even if Trump threatens the legislation with a veto. A vote to repeal the 2001 AUMF in the House would be a strong rebuke of Trump’s stance toward Iran – and an important step toward reclaiming Congress’s war powers.

“The saber rattling from the Trump administration and its posturing about using the 2001 AUMF to justify war with Iran are, quite frankly, terrifying,” Brandon-Smith said. “If Congress really wants to prevent war with Iran, it should repeal the outdated 2001 AUMF and stop the administration from using this law as a blank check for endless war.”

This story has been updated.