Democrats will attempt to curb President Trump’s war powers after a U.S. drone strike killed a senior Iranian military leader in what lawmakers are calling a major escalation that could lead to war.
Senate Democrats are mobilizing behind a resolution that would force Trump to withdraw American troops from hostilities against Iran unless Congress declares war or passes a resolution authorizing military force.
“I will do everything I can to assert our authority. We do not need this president either bumbling or impulsively getting us into a major war,” Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
“We need Congress to be a check on this president,” he said.
The drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and several Iran-backed militia leaders drew a swift and angry rebuke from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who vowed “forceful revenge.”
Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis warned Sunday that Iran could target U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf as well as senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Europe, whom he described as “soft targets.”
Kataib Hezbollah, the militant group that attacked a U.S. base in Kirkuk a week ago, killing a contractor, have said they will attack U.S. forces in the region in the coming days.
The Pentagon announced Friday that it would send an additional 3,000 troops to the Middle East.
Trump warned Saturday that if Iran strikes any Americans or Americans assets, U.S. forces would retaliate immediately.
“We have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago),” he tweeted.
Democrats in both chambers warn that the United States and Iran may be on a path to a larger military clash, something Republicans worried about last year in the aftermath of other incidents like Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone in June.
House Democrats can essentially force a vote in the Senate because the war-powers resolution is privileged, but they’re unlikely to get the two-thirds majority needed in both chambers to overcome an expected presidential veto if the measure makes it to Trump’s desk.
Republicans, meanwhile, have rallied around the president for ordering the drone strike in Baghdad that killed Soleimani. Any resolution to curb Trump’s power to attack Iran is likely to receive less GOP support than a resolution Congress passed last year to force the administration to end U.S. military support for the civil war in Yemen.
Trump vetoed that measure, and a Senate vote to override it fell well short of 67 votes, mustering only 53.
Democrats, however, argue that this time around Trump has acted rashly in a way that will destabilize the Middle East. They now hope to drive a wedge between the president and Republican lawmakers leery of the president’s foreign policy decisions.
Even if Trump is certain to veto a war-powers resolution, Democrats would view a bipartisan vote to limit the president’s military authority as an important victory in an election year.
“The Senate must not let this president march into another war in the Middle East without authorization from Congress,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has co-sponsored the resolution directing Trump to pull U.S. troops back from Iran-related hostilities.
“The Constitution is clear — only the Congress can declare war,” Durbin said.
Democratic senators are discussing when to force a vote on the resolution and what other tools are at their disposal.
“People are exploring the different options right now,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who warned in a Senate floor speech that Trump’s action would reduce U.S. influence in Iraq, a majority Shia country that borders Iran, which is also majority Shia.
Aside from debating and voting on a war powers resolution, Democrats will press the administration on what legal rationale it used to justify the strike and what strategy it has in place to guard against Iranian reprisals.
Trump said Friday that he ordered the mission against Soleimani “to stop a war.”
Seven Senate Republicans voted with Democrats in March to require Trump to withdraw troops in or affecting Yemen within 30 days: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Steve Daines (Mont.), Mike Lee (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Todd Young (Ind.).
So far no GOP senator has criticized Trump’s action against Iran, although Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent critic of the president, especially in foreign policy-related areas, said he wants the administration to offer a more detailed explanation of its strategy.
“It’s imperative that the US & our allies articulate & pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region. I will be pressing the Administration for additional details in the days ahead,” Romney tweeted.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor Friday that he is working to set up a classified briefing on the strike this next week with all senators.
At the same time, McConnell, who is up for reelection and counting on support from Trump to mobilize the GOP base, applauded Trump’s decision.
“The architect and chief engineer for the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism has been removed from the battlefield at the hand of the United States military,” he said.
McConnell urged colleagues to review the facts closely before criticizing the president.
“Although I anticipate and welcome a debate about America’s interests and foreign policy in the Middle East, I recommend that all senators wait to review the facts and hear from the administration before passing much public judgment on this operation and its potential consequences,” he said.
Trump, following in the footsteps of his two predecessors, has used a 2001 authorization of military force against al Qaeda and its allies to justify military actions around the Middle East and Africa.
Democrats argue that authority cannot possibly be used to justify military action against Iran, which is fighting al Qaeda’s successor, ISIS.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned on the Senate floor Friday that Trump cannot expand military attacks against Iran without explicit approval from Congress and demanded to know what legal justification was used for the strike and what the administration is doing to guard against retaliatory strikes.
“The president does not have the authority for a war with Iran. If he plans a large increase in troops and potential hostility over a longer time, the administration will require congressional approval and the approval of the American people,” Schumer said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called on the administration to brief the entire Congress on what she called a “serious situation.”
She warned that Trump’s strike risks a “dangerous escalation of violence.”
One option could be to force a debate and vote on the war powers resolution before the start of Trump’s impeachment trial, which is on hold while McConnell and Schumer are at an impasse on the rules of the proceedings.
Before the holiday break, some Republicans were talking about using early January to approve the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement trade deal in the Senate.
The more likely scenario now, however, is that senators will have to wait until partisan tensions over impeachment subside a bit and lawmakers have more information about the national security threat posed by Iran.