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Why Congress Won't Strip Trump of His War Powers

“Congress is really afraid of owning these wars, of taking a stand on these military actions.”

by Cameron Joseph and Daniel Newhauser
Jan 7 2020, 3:11pm

WASHINGTON — Hoping Congress will stop President Trump from stumbling into a war with Iran? Don't hold your breath.

Democrats are making a push this week to keep Trump from backing into a war with Iran, including a war powers resolution that would limit his ability to attack the country and a separate measure to strip funding from military efforts.

The Democratic-controlled House will vote on a war powers resolution aimed at curtailing Trump’s powers in Iran this week, a vote that’ll likely sail through the chamber. Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) push on the Senate side will at least get a vote after Jan.13, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t be able to block it.

But even if Democrats win over some GOP senators on the measure, the best they can hope for is a moral victory of passing the bill through the Senate before Trump vetoes it.

All that effort is almost certain to fall short of actually constraining the president from doing just about whatever he wants abroad — just like every other congressional attempt to rein in the president on foreign affairs since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Congress is really afraid of owning these wars, of taking a stand on these military actions,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Even in the best of times, Congress has shown a complete inability to exert its constitutional power to declare war. In case you haven’t noticed, these aren’t exactly the best of times.

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Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has spent a half-decade on a push to modify the 2001 and 2002 authorizations of military force — the legal justification that presidents of both parties have used as a pretext to launch whatever military actions they see fit throughout the Middle East and Muslim world ever since 9/11.

Those authorizations of military force are how President Obama got involved in Libya and committed strikes in Pakistan including the one that killed Osama Bin Laden without ever getting a congressional vote, and how Trump was able to do the same in Syria and Iraq to target ISIS. Kaine is now renewing his efforts following Trump’s decision to kill a top-ranking Iranian general.

So what’s his best-case scenario for his vote? Forcing his colleagues to go on the record.

“The idea of another war in the Middle East, a war with Iran, is incredibly unpopular.”

“Putting everybody on the board — everybody should be on the board about whether they believe in their oath,” Kaine told VICE News. “The idea of another war in the Middle East, a war with Iran, is incredibly unpopular.”

In fact it’s paradoxically even harder to corral votes for a resolution limiting Trump’s powers now that he’s already used them, unlike prior efforts to limit lower profile conflicts. It’s a lot harder to stand up to your own party’s president than oppose a hypothetical future action.

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“Most of the Republicans are responding complimentary of the President, not questioning his legal authority,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “You're for the home team, and you get that loyalty to America, which I understand. But loyalty to America is the proper use of our armed forces.”

That happened just last year, as Kaine worked with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and a handful of Republicans to pass a resolution blocking the Trump administration’s ongoing support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen. Trump vetoed that measure, though the Trump administration did back off some of its military support.

But seven Republican senators broke with their party on that Yemen vote, creating some real bipartisan pressure. That doesn’t seem like it’ll happen this time around.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is the only one of the Republicans who worked on the Yemen resolution who appears to have the stomach to stand up to Trump on this much more high-profile matter — he said he was supportive “in concept” of Kaine’s push, though he wanted to see the details.

“The death of Soleimani I think is the death of diplomacy, and I think that's unfortunate.“

“Leaving the [nuclear] agreement, placing an embargo and now killing a general, and you look and you say ‘well, maybe they'll want to negotiate now’ — you'd have to be a brain-dead individual to believe that,” Paul said. “The death of Soleimani I think is the death of diplomacy, and I think that's unfortunate.“

But Paul and other libertarian-minded Republicans like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) are the exception that proves the rule — most of their GOP partners on Yemen have so far stayed quiet or praised Trump’s targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

“At the end of the day, too many Congressional Republicans and Democrats, including Pelosi, want to keep us in the quagmire in the Middle East, so I doubt anything with teeth will pass,” Massie said. “If something of any substance did pass both chambers, it couldn’t sustain a presidential veto.”

Khanna and Sanders have taken the lead on another Democratic effort to constrain Trump on Iran by blocking funds for military escalation towards Iran.

“It’s important not to just pass a war powers resolution but exercise our power, which is the power of the purse,” Khanna told VICE News. “We need to be willing not just to make statements and pass constitutional measure but to actually cut off the funding for these illegal acts.”

That bill could well pass the House soon — but that’s likely as far as it will go, as unlike the war powers resolution Democrats can’t force a Senate vote on this one.

Democrats actually managed to attach a similar provision to the original version of the last National Defense Authorization Act, the bill that funded the Pentagon for 2020. But it was stripped out in final negotiations with the White House.

Some progressives argue that was a huge missed opportunity — Khanna claimed that the measure “would have prevented” Trump from killing Soleimani by threatening Pentagon funding if he acted. But other Democrats are skeptical it would have deterred Trump, who has regularly bent and tested rules meant to constrain the executive branch.

“He doesn’t care about Congress,” Kaine said.

On the Senate floor Monday evening, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) warned of the costs of Congressional inaction to rein in a bellicose president.

“If Congress does nothing a war can develop and continue at great human cost,” he warned.

Cover: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press outside the grand ballroom as he arrives for a New Year's celebration at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on December 31, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

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