As fear of a conflict with Iran rises, Democrats want to make clear that they will not support any offensive military action against the country unless there is prior authorization from Congress. But they have already come to the realization that their message will have little practical effect, as the Republican-led Senate won’t pass a duo of Democratic measures.
Last week, the Democratic-led House passed a bill that included a provision to repeal the post-September 11 authorization for use of military force, which the Trump administration may use as a legal justification for a war with Iran. This week, Senate Democrats have pressured Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to require congressional approval to fund any such conflict as an amendment to the annual, must-pass defense policy bill.
Neither effort is expected to succeed, leaving Democrats with few remaining options to influence the Trump administration’s Iran strategy.
Senate Democrats are weighing whether to block the National Defense Authorization Act if they are not allowed a vote on a bipartisan amendment requiring congressional consent for military action against Iran.
“Escalation happens very quickly in the Middle East,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explaining why Democrats want to limit President Donald Trump’s abilities. “Without a steady hand at the helm, without a coherent plan or strategy — things the President has lacked since the moment he took office — the danger of bumbling into war is acute.”
It’s not clear if Schumer could hold all 47 members of caucus together against the bill. Several moderate Democrats, especially those in swing states, might not want to vote against the NDAA because it typically has broad bipartisan support and this year includes a pay raise for service members.
The Iran amendment was written by Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, and co-sponsored by several Democrats and two Republicans, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. It would prevent funds in the NDAA from being used to carry out military strikes.
But in a sign it would fail, McConnell said he would “strongly oppose” the Udall amendment, arguing it would “pre-emptively tie the hands of our military commanders, weaken our diplomatic leverage, embolden our adversaries and create a dangerous precedent.”
He said “nearly every president has utilized limited use of force against adversaries” without “preauthorization from Congress” and that “no one is calling for majority military operations” against Iran.
Schumer pushed back on McConnell’s argument saying the Kentucky Republican had “deliberately distorted” the impact of the amendment and said it “would not diminish our military’s ability to respond to a provocation of war or act in self-defense.”
McConnell ultimately said he would not oppose having a vote on the Udall amendment, knowing it was unlikely to attract enough votes needed to pass.
A separate, Democratic-led effort in the House to repeal the post 9/11 AUMF also looks likely to fail in the Senate.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, told CNN that his party faces a “dilemma.” Democrats believe the 2001 AUMF does not apply to a conflict with Iran, but they also know the administration could skirt a debate over congressional authorization if the US acted in response to a provoked Iran.
“While in principle it’s a good idea, and it offers us a way of making it clear that we’re not supportive of their strategy, I don’t think it would have any actual effect on the ability of hardliners in the Trump administration to carry out what I think their strategy is,” said Malinowski.
“It would not be appropriate I think for the Congress to prevent the President from acting in self-defense,” he added. “So that leaves us with a dilemma.”
House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith said the fight was part of a long struggle between the White House and Congress over the use of military force.
“I think we’re concerned that an 18-year-old law that was set up originally to go after specifically the people who attacked us on 9/11 has been used very broadly to expand presidential military power,” Smith told CNN.
“Now repealing the AUMF does not solve that problem,” said Smith. “Presidents have an expanded view of what they can use the military for and Congress needs to battle to retake our ground, but that’s a decades if not centuries-old battle.”
Smith added that Congress should not pass new legislation to provide Trump with new authority to go to war.
“God no,” he said. “We don’t need to give him more power.”
CORRECTION: Sen. Tom Udall’s name has been corrected in this story.