A leading anti-war Democrat and a Donald Trump loyalist are at the forefront of a renewed bipartisan revolt in Congress to stop the president from taking unilateral military action in Iran.
Reps. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, and Florida Republican Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s fiercest defenders in the House, are behind a proposal to require congressional authorization for any attack against Iran. And their amendment is now a major flash point in negotiations with the Senate that kicked off Thursday over a final defense bill.
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The Iran debate is part of a broader showdown over war powers between the White House and a diverse coalition in Congress as Trump decides whether to retaliate against Tehran for its alleged role in recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Even some supporters of the president say Congress has shirked its constitutional responsibilities for too long by giving the White House a blank check on going to war.
“In a time when this town feels like shirts and skins every day, to have 30 Republicans join with Democrats to stand against forever wars has been very therapeutic to some of the corrosive attempts by the war lobby to start three new wars before lunchtime tomorrow,” Gaetz told POLITICO in an interview on Thursday.
“Some of the closest allies of the president … supported this amendment because they believe in the Constitution,” added Khanna. “Given what’s going on, I think it’s increased the need for that amendment.”
Indeed, the effort has drawn an unlikely coalition of progressives, centrist military veterans and dozens of Republicans wary of expanding executive war powers.
It is that last point of view that made Gaetz and Khanna — both members of the House Armed Services Committee — unlikely allies, according to Gaetz. “When he and I got to talking about the good we can do to stand against forever wars,” he recalled, “this Iran situation captured our focus.”
Their Iran provision already passed the House in July, while a similar provision, offered by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), failed on the Senate floor in a 50-40 vote. Four Republicans broke ranks to support that measure.
The House provision is now a major point of contention as House and Senate negotiators iron out a final version of the National Defense Authorization Act — and part of a multi-pronged challenge to Trump’s war powers.
The defense bill passed by the House would also withdraw U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition that has intervened in Yemen’s civil war.
Khanna, who was selected as one of the negotiators on a final bill, played a leading role in efforts earlier this year to try to force Trump to cut off military aid to Saudi Arabia in its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Both chambers passed that legislation, only for Trump to veto it.
Meanwhile, the House version of the defense bill would also repeal the 2002 military authorization enacted ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
And a separate defense appropriations package that passed the House in June would sunset the 2001 war authorization adopted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, which has underpinned the war in Afghanistan and dozens of far-flung counterterrorism operations.
Some war skeptics fear that Trump would use the 2001 authorization as a legal rationale to strike neighboring Iran, which is designated by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and disabled veteran of the Iraq War, raised that concern in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday.
“We haven’t debated and passed a new Authorization for Use of Military Force in more than 15 years, and there’s just no way that the AUMF passed to go after the perpetrators of 9/11 can justify military action against Iran nearly two decades later,” she said.
Whether the president or Congress should play the leading role in sending U.S. troops into battle remains one of the most unsettled constitutional questions. The commander in chief has commonly reigned supreme, and there are relatively few instances in American history when Congress has exerted its authority to declare war.
A recent analysis by the Congressional Research Service found only 11 instances in which Congress formally declared war, out of hundreds of military conflicts over more than two centuries. Many of the military engagements in which Congress played little or no role were “extended military engagements that might be considered undeclared wars,” CRS wrote.
The Iran legislation from Khanna and Gaetz stipulates that “nothing in” either the 2001 or 2002 congressional actions “may be construed to provide authorization for the use of military force against Iran.”
The provision further mandates that “no federal funds may be used for any use of military force in or against Iran,” unless Congress has declared war or enacted a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force.
The only exception, it adds, would be if the president ordered the use of military force consistent with the War Powers Act. That 1973 law requires the president to notify Congress of hostilities within 48 hours, but mandates that the troops to be withdrawn within 60 days if Congress has not expressly authorized the mission.
“It is extremely salient,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat from Arizona and a former Marine who is involved in the negotiations as a member of the Armed Services Committee, in an interview Thursday. “We are on the precipice, unfortunately, of attacking Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia. We have no treaty alliance with Saudi Arabia. They should be defending themselves.”
He added, “It is not in the national interest to get in the middle of another war in the Middle East.”
Republican hawks are expected to push back fiercely, however. They include Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, another negotiator on a final defense bill.
“This amendment is unconstitutional, harmful to American security, and sends a dangerous message about American resolve,” she said in a statement provided by her office. “Congress should never limit the President’s ability to defend our nation.
“This effort is especially dangerous as Iran continues to escalate its hostile behavior against the U.S. and its interests,” she added.
Others argue that the provision goes too far and undercuts the president’s authority as commander in chief.
“I think there is no question it would be contested as extending beyond Congress’ authority in the Constitution,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. “There’d be a fight about it, of course.”
But supporters of curtailing Trump’s ability to send U.S. forces into combat against Iran insisted they won’t back down easily as negotiations continue over a final defense bill.
“It’s incredibly important. … It’s the right thing to do by the Constitution,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), another Marine veteran, who is a member of the conference committee tasked with marrying the House and Senate versions of the bill.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, also expressed hope that the Iran war restrictions will prevail.
“I just worry that we’re moving to the point where we’re not doing anything and we’ve basically just abdicated our constitutional responsibility to exercise any oversight over when we go to war,” Smith told reporters. “So I think we need to come up with language that … protects the congressional role in that process.”
Added Gallego: “We feel there is a mandate — not a Democratic mandate but a bipartisan mandate — to stop tripping ourselves into a war in with Iran.”