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House approves war powers resolution to restrict Trump on Iran

House votes to limit Trump's military power

Washington — The House of Representatives delivered a sharp rebuke to President Trump over his use of U.S. military power in the Middle East, approving a measure, relating to the War Powers Resolution of 1983, to restrict his authority to strike Iran without congressional approval. The resolution passed by a vote of 224 to 194 and now goes to the Senate. Eight Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the resolution, while three Republicans voted in favor. Seven of the eight Democrats who voted with Republicans are freshmen.

The bill is what's known as a "concurrent resolution," meaning it requires only the approval of both chambers of Congress and does not go to the president for his signature. Republicans argue this makes the bill non-binding and largely symbolic.

The vote on the resolution, which was sponsored by freshman Democrat congresswoman and former intelligence analyst Elissa Slotkin, comes nearly a week after Mr. Trump authorized a strike to kill Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top military leader. Democrats and some Republicans expressed outrage that the president failed to consult Congress in advance of the strike, seeing it as overreach of executive power.

The Iranians retaliated for the strike on Wednesday, launching ballistic missiles against two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq. But the strikes caused no casualties, and on Wednesday Mr. Trump said Iran appeared to be backing down, calming fears about a potential all-out confrontation that might have quickly spiraled out of control.

What the resolution says

The concurrent resolution "directs the President to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military" unless Congress has declared war or specifically authorized engaging in hostilities, or if "such use of the Armed Forces is necessary and appropriate to defend against an imminent armed attack upon the United States."

"We must use this tool of congressional tool of congressional power, or by our silence acquiesce to the growth of the imperial presidency," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a speech on the floor ahead of the vote.

The bill directs the president to end hostilities with Iran pursuant to a section of the War Powers Resolution, which was originally adopted to constrain President Richard Nixon's powers in the final throes of the Vietnam War. The 1973 act states that any forces engaged in hostilities outside the U.S. "shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs by concurrent resolution."

A concurrent resolution does not require Mr. Trump's signature to take effect. But legal questions about Congress' authority to direct the executive branch via concurrent resolution remain unresolved. In 1983, the Supreme Court struck down a similar provision dealing with the so-called "legislative veto." But some legal experts contend the provision in the War Powers Resolution would survive legal scrutiny despite the court's ruling, citing several differences between the laws.

Capitol Hill security briefing on developments with Iran after attacks by Iran on U.S. forces in Iraq,
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrives for a briefing on developments with Iran at the Capitol on January 8, 2020. Alexander Drago / Reuters

"The best way to send a message"

Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, told reporters she had initially been skeptical about the measure being a concurrent resolution, as opposed to the more standard joint resolution.

"When I first saw it, I have to admit, I was a bit nervous that it was not the strongest thing we could do," Jayapal said on Capitol Hill. However, a joint resolution would need a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate, which is not needed for a concurrent resolution. She said a concurrent resolution was "the best way to send a message that doesn't get undermined by the president."

"I now actually think it's a stronger way to send a message than ending up relying on the president, because what we're really saying is, 'Look, we've got bicameral, bipartisan support to rein you in and make sure you follow the Constitution and respect our powers,'" Jayapal said.

However, a Democratic lawmaker who voted against the resolution argued Mr. Trump had the authority to order the strike on Soleimani.

"President Trump was justified in killing a terrorist who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of American servicemembers and was in the process of planning to kill more," said Congressman Max Rose in a statement. "Unfortunately, today's War Powers Resolution is a non-binding resolution that simply restates existing law and sends the message that war is imminent. I refuse to play politics with questions of war and peace and therefore will not support this resolution."

Republican Congressman Mark Meadows excoriated Democrats in a speech on the House floor, saying that all Americans should be glad that Soleimani is dead, and slammed the "nonbinding resolution that is nothing more than a press release." He also suggested that Democrats were unpatriotic by opposing the strike against Soleimani.

"I would ask my colleagues opposite how many Americans does a terrorist have to kill before they join with us," Meadows asked Democrats. "All this does is it emboldens our enemies, to suggest that Americans are divided."

What comes next

Efforts to restrict Mr. Trump's authority face dimmer prospects in the Senate, but cracks in the president's support among Republican senators began to emerge Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah fumed to reporters after a briefing by top administration officials about the strike that killed Soleimani and the intelligence underlying the legal justification for taking him out. Lee said the officials' presentation was so inadequate that it convinced him to support a similar war powers resolution backed by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine. Lee called the briefing "probably the worst briefing at least on a military issue I've seen," saying it was "insulting."

"They had to leave after 75 minutes while in the process of telling us we need to be good little boys and girls and not debate this in public," Lee said. Republican Senator Rand Paul also said the inadequacy of the briefing had convinced him to support Kaine's war powers measure. Unlike the resolution in the House, Kaine is proposing a joint resolution.

Pelosi said Wednesday that the House may soon consider legislation to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, as well as additional legislation to prevent the president from spending funds on hostilities with Iran without explicit congressional authorization.

Stefan Becket and Rebecca Kaplan contributed to this report.

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