WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate issued a rare bipartisan rebuke to President Donald Trump Thursday when it approved a resolution that would curtail his ability to take military action against Iran without first securing congressional approval.
The resolution passed with support from 55 senators, including eight Republicans.
“The resolution before the body today is about Congress reclaiming its rightful role in decisions about war,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who authored the proposal and who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, said during the Senate debate.
“The resolution is pretty simple: We should not be at war with Iran unless Congress votes to authorize such a war.”
“The Constitution is very clear that only Congress has the authority to declare war and I joined Democrats and Republicans to ensure that President Trump comes to Congress first before pursuing any military action against Iran and starting another war in the Middle East,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). “Democrats and Republicans agree. We can’t let the President send more young men and women to war and repeat the mistakes of the past.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) voted no.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen stated ahead of the vote: “The framers gave Congress and Congress only the power to declare war.”
All 47 senators who caucus with the Democratic Party (45 Democrats and two independents) backed the resolution, as did GOP Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Todd Young of Indiana, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
“This resolution is much needed and it is long overdue,” Collins said in a press conference Wednesday. “It reasserts Congress’ constitutional role and recognizes that the framers did not vest in the president the authority to declare war unilaterally.”
The vote comes a month after Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian general, Qassim Suleimani, without congressional approval. Military officials said Suleimani, who was in Iraq at the time, had active plans to kill Americans, but Trump’s critics in Congress have said the evidence of such a threat hasn’t been sufficient to risk a U.S. war against Iran.
The tally in the Senate is not enough to override a presidential veto, which the Trump administration threatened Wednesday.
“It is very important for our Country’s SECURITY that the United States Senate not vote for the Iran War Powers Resolution,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
“We are doing very well with Iran and this is not the time to show weakness. Americans overwhelmingly support our attack on terrorist [Suleimani] … If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal. The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party. Don’t let it happen!”
Specifically, the resolution would require the president to brief Congress and the public before the United States takes hostile military action against Iran and would require that Congress debate and vote on such matters before military action occurs.
The House approved its own war powers resolution last month, but it differs from the Senate version passed Thursday.
Opponents derided the effort as a political attempt to restrain Trump and said it would send a message of military weakness to other countries, which could embolden bad actors.
“Whether you like it or not, the message that this sends is that American members of both parties do not want the president to respond militarily to an attack,” GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said on the Senate floor during Wednesday’s debate.
Some Iranians will believe Trump’s “hands are tied by politics in Washington,” he said. Merely debating the resolution, he said, heightens that perception and increases chances of war.
Other Republicans disagreed, reflecting long-standing divisions within the GOP on matters of foreign policy and national security.
“This is not about the presidency, this is not about wanting a weak presidency or a weak commander in chief,” Utah’s Mike Lee said at the press conference. “This really is about the proper allocation of power between the three branches of government.”
Congress, he said, has been losing its authority in this area in recent years, a point with which Collins agreed.
“Over the past decade, regrettably, Congress has too often abdicated its constitutional responsibility on authorizing the sustained use of military force,” she said.
Kaine said the resolution is not directed at Trump but would apply equally to all presidents, regardless of party, and said it would strengthen the U.S. military, not weaken it.
“If we’re to order our young men and women” to risk their lives in war, “it should be on the basis of careful deliberation by the people’s elected legislature, and not on the say-so of any one person,” he said on the floor.
In response to Trump ordering the attack on Suleimani, Iran attacked two bases in Iraq that house U.S. troops. The attacks did not kill anyone, but more than 100 U.S. troops sustained traumatic brain injuries, The New York Times reported.
Trump characterized the injuries as “headaches” and said he didn’t consider them very serious.
The incident renewed the debate over war powers under the Constitution, which divides authority between the legislative and executive branches of government.
Article II of the Constitution designates the president as commander in chief of the armed forces, while Article I grants Congress the power to declare war and to raise and support the armed forces. Less clear is the extent of the president’s authority to deploy U.S. military into hostile situations without prior approval, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the president can defend the nation from an armed attack or insurrection within its borders without congressional approval, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it has not weighed in on cases when no such attack has occurred.
“Just a short time ago we almost stumbled into a war with Iran,” Van Hollen said. “And make no mistake, the tensions may not be playing out on our TV screens today, they may not be making headlines at this particular moment, but it’s still a very dangerous and volatile time.”