WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday cleared a resolution that would legally prohibit President Donald Trump from attacking Iran, in the latest evidence of lawmakers’ growing willingness to assert themselves in matters of war and peace.
The president is expected to veto the legally binding joint resolution. The mostly partisan 227-186 vote fell well short of the margin to override a veto, which requires a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate.
However, it is possible that advocates of Congress asserting its constitutional prerogatives over war powers, including resolution sponsor Sen. Time Kaine, D-Va., will insist on holding votes to attempt to overturn the veto, regardless of the outcome.
The Kaine resolution, which passed the Senate in February in a rare bipartisan vote of 55-45 under the authority of the 1973 War Powers Act, would require Trump to immediately cease any hostilities against Iran and Iranian government officials. The resolution, however, does not prohibit the president from taking actions to defend the United States from an imminent attack.
The specter of a hot war with Iran has abated somewhat from its peak in early January when lawmakers feared Tehran would retaliate against U.S. forces for the targeted drone strike that killed top Iranian military commander, Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The one known retaliatory attack that Iran has launched — a ballistic missile strike on bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were deployed — resulted in more than 100 brain injuries of troops in bunkers because of the force of the concussion blasts but no fatalities. But lawmakers are still worried about an irreversible slide into war if the Trump administration gets enmeshed in a tit-for-tat retaliation cycle with Iran.
Democrats are expected to use this spring’s debate around the fiscal 2021 defense policy bill to once again push for language that would limit Trump’s ability to go to war absent congressional authorization.
Lawmakers are also likely to continue to push for more transparency around the facts and legal rationale for the killing of Soleimani. A recent appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed for the strike on Soleimani and then offered differing explanations for its justification, did little to ease Democratic lawmaker concerns.
“Mr. Pompeo avoided answering most direct questions and was unable to account for the administration’s shifting explanations since the strike at the start of the year,” committee chairman Eliot L. Engel said in a statement last week. “The administration’s initial explanation of an imminent threat has fallen apart, and the president has now blown through a legally established deadline to provide the public with legal and factual explanations for attacking Iran and other efforts to reinterpret his authority to use military force.”
The New York Democrat said if he does not receive the information he has requested about the Soleimani strike by the end of the week, then he will “use all the power of the Foreign Affairs Committee to compel the administration to provide these answers to Congress and the American people.”
In addition to Wednesday’s passage of the Kaine resolution, the House has voted three other times this year in favor of measures related to preventing an unauthorized war with Iran. The Senate has yet to take any of the House measures up.
“What are we doing here today on this war powers resolution again,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in floor remarks. “Our constituents are concerned about the impact of coronavirus on American lives and the United States economy, not partisan posturing.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., disputed McCaul’s argument the House should be focusing its efforts on responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, which the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic earlier in the day.
“I must disagree with the argument that we ought to be focused on only one thing right now, as grave as the coronavirus crisis is,” Connolly said. “Congress is the people’s body. We are here defending the legislative branch of government and its constitutional role on matters of war and peace. Would could be more serious?…Many of us in this body are going to continue to be here on the floor until Congress reasserts the role the chairman outlined for us, that is the constitutional role.”
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