After years of standing on the sidelines as the United States waged war in countries across the globe, Democrats in Congress are challenging war hawks in the Trump administration and moving to curb the president’s ability to launch military operations in foreign countries without approval from lawmakers.
With votes from a handful of isolationist Republicans, the Democratic majority in the House passed a resolution on Wednesday directing President Trump to halt U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, where an ongoing civil war has killed thousands of civilians and left millions more on the brink of starvation.
The vote came shortly after a heated committee hearing where House Democrats warned White House officials against taking military action in Venezuela, where the U.S. is actively backing opposition politicians in the midst of a political and humanitarian crisis that has severely shaken the sitting government.
The Senate advanced a resolution to end U.S. participation in Yemen’s civil war with a historic vote in January, but maneuvering by GOP leadership kept the House version buried in committee. Lawmakers in both parties are angry about Trump’s response to the alleged murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi officials, and the Senate vote was widely seen as a harsh rebuke of Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudi crown.
The resolution passed this week in the House appeases Republicans by allowing the U.S. to continue sharing intelligence with the Saudi Arabia, which is considered an ally, and instead targets U.S. material support to the coalition led by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. Weapons from the U.S. have reportedly been used in airstrikes that killed civilians, and a recent CNN investigation found that American-made weapons have ended up in the hands of al Qaeda-linked fighters and various militias.
House Democrats are now demanding the Senate act on Yemen again and pass the resolution, which was recently reintroduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Trump is expected to veto the resolution if it passes the Senate, setting up a potential showdown with Congress over war powers.
The Yemen resolutions invoke the War Powers Act, a law passed in 1973 to reassert Congress’s constitutional war-making authority by limiting the president’s ability to deploy U.S. forces into war zones without authorization from Congress. Lawmakers have since been unable to effectively deploy the law as presidents from both parties expanded the power of the Oval Office and launched military strikes across the world.
Congress appears to be changing its tune after years of seemingly endless war and foreign entanglements in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Unnerved by Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip approach to foreign relations, lawmakers are moving to contain the former reality-TV show host now serving as commander-in-chief, along with his hawkish advisors. Yemen is not the only crisis zone on their minds.
Democrats Reject Trump’s Venezuela Threats
During a heated House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, new-empowered Democrats expressed grave concern about statements from President Trump suggesting that a military invasion of Venezuela remains an option on the table. Committee chair Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York City Democrat who shepherded the Yemen resolution to the House floor, warned that Trump’s “saber-rattling” ignores the will of Congress.
“I want to make clear to our witnesses and everybody watching — U.S. military intervention is not an option,” Engel said. “Congress decides where, when and how the U.S. military is used around the world, and Congress would not support military intervention in Venezuela.”
Engel’s statement was clearly directed at Elliot Abrams, the neoconservative regime-change enthusiast serving as Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela and the star witness appearing before the committee. Venezuela is suffering a complicated political and humanitarian crisis, and the U.S. and other allies have thrown their support behind a right-wing opposition leader attempting to harness popular revolt and unseat Nicolás Maduro, the country’s leftist president.
Mexico, Bolivia and other countries in the region are backing Maduro in defense of Venezuelan sovereignty, and critics say the Trump administration is following a well-established pattern of U.S. intervention in Latin America by engineering a coup in the oil-rich country. While many U.S. lawmakers in both parties assert that Maduro should leave office and support new elections in Venezuela, a number of Democrats in Congress and some Republicans oppose U.S. military intervention.
Abrams, who previously served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, is linked to a failed coup against former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and has been accused of war crimes and abetting genocide for his part in deadly US interventions in Central America in the 1980s. In 1991, Abrams pled guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra investigations and was later pardoned.
“Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?” asked Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota during a heated exchange with the special envoy. (Abrams refused to respond.)
Other Democrats questioned Abrams about the War Powers Act and whether Trump has the authority to launch an attack in Venezuela without consulting with Congress.
“Under our Constitution, as you know, only Congress can declare war, and we have neither declared war or granted the administration the authority to send the armed forces into hostilities in Venezuela,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island).
Abrams pushed back, refusing to say whether Trump would be required to consult with Congress before attacking Venezuela and saying that “a series of presidents have had a jaundiced view towards the War Powers Act.” These include President Obama and President Bush, who used a broad interpretation of military authorizations issued by Congress after the 9/11 attacks to launch military operations across in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East.
After the hearing, Trump issued a joint statement with Colombian President Ivan Duque pledging to work with opposition leaders to “restore freedom, democracy, and prosperity to Venezuela” and referring to Maduro as the country’s “former dictator.” Abrams had told Democrats that he was not aware of any plans to position U.S. troops in neighboring Colombia, and Trump’s statement did not mention military action.
“Doing Nothing Means Complicity in Endless War”
Congress has not declared war since 1942, but U.S. forces have been fighting wars across the world ever since. While some lawmakers criticized former presidents for their military interventions and failure to bring a timely end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, legislation challenging the president’s military power has gone nowhere – until now.
The passage of the war powers resolution on Yemen in the House sent a clear signal that Democrats are ready to challenge Trump on foreign intervention, and lawmakers are currently pushing several bills that would do just that.
Cicilline has introduced a bill to prohibit an invasion of Venezuela that has attracted nearly 30 Democratic cosponsors in the House, including progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Rep. Walter Jones, a Republican famous for coining the term “freedom fries” before becoming a staunch critic of the war in Iraq, was the sole cosponsor on the GOP side before dying at the age of 76 this past weekend.
Engel said a bipartisan bill on Venezuela that he has been working on with Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was almost complete before talks broke down earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) is rallying co-sponsors behind her bill that would sunset the 2001 use-of-force authorization broadly interpreted by Bush and Obama to justify the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a global military campaign against Islamic fundamentalists that has stretched across a dozen other countries. Progressives and peace activists have long criticized the authorization as a “blank check” for war, but bipartisan efforts to change or repeal it have failed in the past.
Heather Brandon-Smith, a legislative director at the pro-peace Friends Committee on National Legislation, said there have not been enough political consequences for lawmakers who took little action while former presidents directed U.S. military interventions across the world. Now that members of Congress are showing a willingness to stand up to Trump, voters and antiwar activists must make it clear that peace should be a legislative priority.
“Doing nothing means complicity in endless war,” Brandon-Smith said.
None of the legislation in Congress goes far enough to rein in the vast, global reach of the U.S. military; deep cuts in defense spending are needed to do that. However, with Trump at the helm of the armed forces, Congress is creating new hope for peace by finally asserting its authority over when and where the U.S. goes to war.
Correction: Rep. Engel said he attempted to craft bipartisan legislation on Venezuela with the ranking Republican member if his committee, not the House minority whip, as this article originally stated.