Bipartisan Pressure Is Mounting to Rein In Trump’s War Powers

The House of Representatives is expected to vote Thursday on two pieces of legislation aimed at preventing President Trump from waging an unnecessary war against Iran without approval from Congress. Both measures were stripped from a defense spending authorization bill last month, when dozens of progressive Democrats and a handful of isolationist Republicans voted against the must-pass legislation in protest.

One measure, championed by longtime war critic Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California), would sunset and repeal the 2002 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) issued by Congress to greenlight the initial invasion of Iraq. Since then, each presidential administration has broadly interpreted the authorization to justify dozens of military operations in Iraq and beyond. This includes the Trump administration, which cited the 2002 AUMF when asked whether Trump had legal authority to order the drone strike that killed the Iranian military commander Qassim Suleimani earlier this month. Iran and allied Shia militias have since retaliated with rocket attacks on U.S. positions in Iraq, injuring dozens of U.S. troops and raising fears of a long and costly proxy war.

A second measure would prohibit the Pentagon from funding a war with Iran without approval from Congress (the president could still respond to a national emergency created by an attack on the U.S. or its forces under the War Powers Act). Introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) in the House and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in the Senate, the legislation reasserts Congress’s power of the purse and reflects longstanding frustration among lawmakers and voters over the cost of endless war. Both measures are expected to pass in the House, where Democrats hold a majority, but could have a tougher time in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In this exclusive interview with Truthout, Khanna explains why some congressional Republicans, along with voters in both parties, support restoring Congress’s authority to decide when and where the U.S. goes to war — and why Sanders’s bipartisan leadership on matters of war and peace helped cement Khanna’s support for the senator’s presidential campaign.

Mike Ludwig: I understand there is a specific strategy in the way you are putting these measures to a vote, as amendments to another bill. Is that correct?

Rep. Ro Khanna: That is correct and they will be introduced on Thursday. We will pass them with overwhelming majorities, including some Republicans. The procedure is to prevent a non-germane amendment from distracting from the vote, and then we will get a vote in the Senate.

I know you’ve been working with Bernie Sanders to secure votes in the Senate, and obviously he reached across the aisle with the Yemen War Powers resolution. Do you have any word on how that is going, at least any bipartisan efforts?

Yes, Senator Sanders led on this issue within a day of the strike, calling for this legislation. He has secured [Republican Senator] Mike Lee, he’s building an effective coalition in the Senate with some Republicans, and I’m hopeful we’ll get a vote in the Senate. One important thing to highlight: The Trump administration was briefing the Republican conference today, and several people told me that the administration made it clear that if Senator Sanders’s and my amendment passed, then it would have prevented the Suleimani strike. Well, Senator Sanders’s and my amendment had passed two months ago and was part of the national defense authorization, until it was stripped. And the lesson is that we should have fought harder to make sure it wasn’t stripped. It would have literally prevented this entire crisis. So, that signals Senator Sanders’s vision and leadership in preventing these kinds of wars, and is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about electing him the next president of the United Sates.

I want to ask really quick about Representative Lee’s bill: Do you see them working in tandem together?

Absolutely. I mean Representative Lee has been a profile in courage in understanding that these authorizations of military force were way too broad and never-ending. Her amendment would repeal the 2002 authorization of force that the administration is aligned with. I mean, the administration’s argument is absurd at the most basic level. Someone in high school would understand that you can’t use an authorization of force to go into Iraq to justify the strikes against Iran. I mean, it takes really a long sophistry to make the case of how authorization of force to go into Iraq justifies killing a top official in Iran. But what Representative Lee is doing is repealing that authorization so you can’t have these kind[s] of convoluted legal arguments [about] executive power and matters of war and peace.

In a recent Politico article, you said that your measure is intended to stop war, not as a rebuke of the president. Could you could elaborate on that? Do you mean that this is not intended as a partisan move, but rather to stop violence?

Yes, exactly, there’s the coalition that extends beyond progressives to people in the Freedom Caucus who are against endless wars. The argument that often resonates with Republican colleagues is when you put it in economic terms. I mean, we are 21 percent of the world’s GDP, China’s 15 percent, Iran is 0.44 percent. It makes no sense for us to be spending the kind of resources we are to be entangled in the Middle East. The entire Middle East economy is 3.5 percent [of world GDP]. And people keep arguing about the Strait of Hormuz, but China and India and Japan and South Korea get oil from Iran from the Strait of Hormuz, so the argument that Iran is going to shut down that strait is not compelling, especially when we have our fifth [Navy] fleet already there. So, the Republicans, some of them, have begun to understand that these endless wars are not only taking civilian lives, but they aren’t in our strategic interest, especially when you have a situation where China hasn’t been in a war since 1979. When you look at the trillions of dollars, literally, that have gone into Afghanistan and Middle East wars, you wonder, Well, why couldn’t we have put that money into building our own infrastructure, our own education, our own universities and providing our own people with health care, and wouldn’t that have made America far stronger and prepared to lead in the 21st century? That is the sentiment of most Americans regardless of political party, and I want to make sure we build that coalition, so whoever the president is has to be more restrained in future military action.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.