Amid a broad congressional push to limit President Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran, a handful of moderate House lawmakers are working to “clarify” Congress’s war powers responsibilities, Republican lawmakers leading the effort told Defense One on Tuesday.
The small working group is made up of lawmakers from both parties that belong to the bipartisan Problem Solvers’ Caucus. Its chairman, Rep. Tom Reed, R-New York, hopes they can agree on language to bring to the broader 48-member caucus.
“It’s obviously not done, so I can’t prejudge it,” Reed said. “But my intention going into this is to take presidential personalities out of it — don’t talk about President Trump or President Obama. Talk about, what does the presidency have in regards to Article II as well as War Powers authority that we can recognize in Congress.”
“I think it’s ripe for us to get together and say, this is what we mean as Congress, and this is what the presidency has, and how do we comply with the rules.”
The War Powers Resolution does not affirmatively provide the president with any authority to carry out hostilities, but multiple administrations have used increasingly permissive interpretations of the law’s requirements to justify military action, such as in Libya under President Barack Obama and this month in Iraq, with Trump ordering a military strike killing Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Critics see most congressional efforts to limit the president’s war-making authority short of cutting off funding as academic, but for Reed and some of his colleagues, “Congress needs to do its job.”
Reed declined to name other members of the working group, but Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., said he is involved. He described their conversations as aimed at putting “parameters” around the existing Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, and laying out Congress’s “expectations” from any administration that carries out hostilities bound by the War Powers Resolution. The proposal should also include a deadline for Congress to act once it is notified by the administration of the use of force, Mitchell said.
“There’s a specific responsibility on Congress to act on a notice,” Mitchell said. “Get that notice, what the plan is, [then] have a timeframe that we have to move forward, we have to take action. Either approve it, revise it, vote against it — but lacking activity, the president moves forward.”
The new effort in the wake of the Soleimani strike is part of a widespread mood on Capitol Hill that Congress needs to reclaim its Article I authority to declare war.For critics, the legal meaning of “war” has shifted too far in the two decades since Congress authorized the George W. Bush administration to attack the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (That AUMF remains in use today.)
The House on Friday voted largely on party lines to pass a nonbinding resolution to restrict U.S. hostilities against Iran — but the three Republican “yea” votes are part of a broader, eclectic group of GOP lawmakers interested in reasserting Congress’s role in deciding when the United States goes to war, even if it means casting a vote opposing the president.
In December, an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that prohibited unauthorized military force against Iran drew 27 Republican votes. The measure did not survive in the final version of the bill, but it got the vote of lawmakers from both the moderate Tuesday Group and Problem Solvers Caucus — and the Trump-allied, flame-throwing Freedom Caucus. Rep. Frank Rooney, R-Fla., who is retiring and flirted with voting for impeachment, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a staunch Trump ally, both voted in favor of the measure. It’s a remarkable combination of lawmakers from two sides of the GOP that have almost nothing in common with one another.
Two other amendments from longtime war critic Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also drew over a dozen Republican votes each. One “expressed the sense of Congress that the 2001 AUMF has been utilized beyond the scope that Congress intended, and that any new authorization for the use of military force to replace the 2001 AUMF should include a sunset clause, a clear and specific expression of objectives, targets, and geographic scope, and reporting requirements.” The other repealed the 2002 AUMF, which allowed Bush to invade Iraq. Both also were stripped out in the final version of the bill signed by Trump.
At least in the case of the Tuesday Group, the amendment votes weren’t organized, said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a former chair of the group. “We did not talk about those amendments in Tuesday Group. It was sort of on our own,” he said.
“I think what the commonality there is — members who understand and respect that we have a constitutional obligation here to put country first and set aside politics,” Reed said. “And when you do that, it is amazing you can get some strange bedfellows put together, because the commonality is we’re all members of Congress.”
Far fewer Republicans voted for Friday’s more symbolic measure to limit the president’s powers to war with Iran for several reasons, according to multiple Republicans. Many supported the individual strike on Soleimani, and agreed with the administration’s interpretation that it did not require congressional authorization.
“I gave it some thought,” said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a former chair of the moderate Tuesday Group who voted for the December Iran amendment but not the War Powers Resolution on Friday. “Because it was [a non-binding resolution], I viewed it as more political. I supported what the president did. I went to the house briefing, I left convinced.”
In the Senate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has four Republican votes for his binding War Powers Resolution — enough to pass the Senate, although Trump is almost certain to veto the measure and supporters lack the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto in either chamber.
But the appetite is there, Upton, Reed and others said.
“I’ve heard a lot more people talk about the propriety of a new congressional authorization than were willing to handcuff the president on Iran,” Rooney said.
Still, Reed acknowledged that the conventional wisdom on the Hill is that War Powers and military authorization votes are “politically toxic” — and therefore too risky to take. “People who voted for the Iraq war authorization — that’s still lingering with them even in today’s politics,” he said, “and that scares a lot of members away from dealing with this issue because they’re worried about the politics of it.”
Matt Mackowiak, a longtime GOP strategist, shrugged off the diverse combination of Republican lawmakers who coalesced around the December amendment from liberal Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and who have decried Trump’s unilateral strike on Soleimani.
“It’s interesting because you have non-interventionist conservatives, and conservatives who have Constitutional concerns, separation-of-powers concerns,” he said. “Part of the reason this has happened is because the president’s position on this is not entirely clear — he’s non-interventionist, doesn’t want to be at war. But in the short term in kinetic situations, he is very much willing to ramp up operations.”
Mackowiak doesn’t see Congressional leadership of either party pulling together a veto-proof majority to either pass a new, more limiting authorization, or use the power of the purse to curtail Trump.
“This is an academic discussion,” Mackowiak said. “It motivates a very small number of members of Congress. It’s going to fade over time, unless they’re gonna get a veto-proof majority or affect funding, all of this is really just talk.”