In the wake of President Trump’s decision to kill a powerful Iranian general and an Iraqi Shia militia leader in a drone strike on Friday, Congress has the power to stop what is arguably already a proxy war with Iran from devolving into all-out war. Indeed, lawmakers already have several options for reasserting their constitutional war powers and immediately taking action to prevent further violence, including measures to block war funding and repeal longstanding military authorizations.
Topping the list is a resolution under the War Powers Act of 1973 that would limit Trump’s ability to wage war with Iran without congressional approval. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent an open letter to Democrats Sunday night informing them that Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat and former CIA analyst from Michigan who focused on Iranian-backed Shia militias during three tours in Iraq, would introduce the resolution this week.
Iranian leaders have vowed to avenge the death of Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the powerful leader of Iran’s Quds Force killed by the U.S. drone strike last week, sparking fears of war or at least sustained and bloody proxy fighting throughout the Middle East. As antiwar protests spread across the United States over the weekend, some advocates called the introduction of such a resolution as a first step toward stemming war.
Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council, compared the current moment to 2002, when Congress debated and approved legislation that greenlighted President Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq.
“We really view this as a kind of a 2002 moment that legislators are going to be judged on for a long time,” Costello said in an interview. “Now we have Trump, and if he hasn’t already started a war, he is certainly moving decisively in that direction.”
Sen. Tim Kaine introduced a similar War Powers Resolution in the Senate on Friday shortly after the drone strike. In June, the Senate voted 50-40 to amend the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a massive defense spending authorization bill, with an earlier version of this resolution. At the time, Democrats hailed the vote as “historic,” but the amendment needed 60 votes to pass under Senate rules — so it failed. The vote came just a week after Trump announced he was “cocked and loaded” to hit Iran with a missile strike in retaliation for a downed U.S. drone but pulled back at the last minute.
Democrats have pushed legislation that could prevent Trump from attacking Iran without congressional approval since the president’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration set off a cascade of events that escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran and initiated a tit-for-tat proxy fight across the region. Both the U.S. and Iran have partnered with various governments and competing regional militias to fight ISIS (also known as Daesh), manipulate the Syrian civil war, and generally exert influence in Iraq, Syria and other countries in the Middle East.
However, Republican leadership has repeatedly pushed back against any attempt to constrain Trump from attacking Iran. If statements from leading Republicans supporting Trump’s explosive decision to kill Suleimani are any evidence, they are likely to continue doing so, even if crisis with Iran intensifies. Iran knows that engaging in all-out war with the U.S. would be a huge risk, but its ability to attack U.S. forces, regional allies and commercial interests through alliances with lightly-armed Shia militias in Iraq and beyond could suck the U.S. into bloody conflicts for years.
Last month, 41 progressive Democrats rebelled against their party’s majority in the House and voted against the final NDAA after a bipartisan amendment that would have prohibited Trump from using federal funding to attack Iran without congressional approval was dropped in negotiations with Senate Republicans. The House had approved the amendment with a 251-170 vote in July. With a year-end deadline looming, the defense spending bill passed without the amendment, with votes from a majority of Democrats.
Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have worked with antiwar groups on legislative efforts to prevent war with Iran and reign in Trump’s ability to launch attacks and meddle in overseas conflicts for months. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the caucus co-chair, said on Monday that the caucus has formally endorsed floor action on at least two bills aimed at preventing further violence and reasserting Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war.
“We are working with leadership to make sure that this week Congress can reassert its constitutional obligation to approve any sort of use of military force, to withdraw any military force that’s being used in the region right now, and prevent the United States from going to a war,” Jayapal said during a press conference in Seattle.
After the killing of Suleimani on Friday, Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders announced the reintroduction of the measure prohibiting federal funding to attack Iran without congressional approval, this time as a stand-alone bill. The legislation clarifies that neither the 2001 nor 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that allowed President Bush to launch the War on Terror and invade Iraq can be used to justify war against Iran.
The Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to declare war, but the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations broadly interpreted the AUMFs to wage war across the Middle East and North Africa for years. The Trump administration has yet to fully reveal its legal justification for killing Suleimani — which Iran clearly views as an act of war — and a legally required notification to Congress about the drone strike remains classified, despite protests from Democrats.
On Friday, White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien told reporters that the drone strike was “consistent” with the 2002 AUMF and the president’s “constitutional authority” to defend the nation.
Rep. Barbara Lee of California and other Democrats in Congress have been pushing to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, and a measure to do so was dropped from the NDAA approved last month. After the drone strike killed Suleimani and several others traveling with a convoy in Iraq last week, Lee called on Congress to repeal both AUMFs and “work to prevent further military action in the region.”
“We have known for years that there is no military solution, and it’s past time to return to a diplomatic strategy with our allies,” Lee said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and spearheaded its impeachment investigation of the Ukraine scandal, has also floated the idea of holding open hearings on Trump’s decision to kill the top Iranian military commander. The White House is reportedly scheduling a closed-door briefing on the drone strike for members of Congress on Wednesday, but open hearings would allow lawmakers to question Pentagon officials in full public view.
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