House Votes to Restrain Trump’s Iran War Powers 1

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided House voted on Thursday to force President Trump to come to Congress for authorization before taking further military action against Iran, in a sharp response to his ratcheting up of hostilities with Tehran without the explicit approval of the legislative branch.

The vote was 224 to 194, almost entirely along party lines, to curtail Mr. Trump’s war-making power. It came as Democrats insisted that the president must involve Congress in any escalation against Iran, and Republicans — following Mr. Trump’s lead — accused Democrats of coddling the enemy in questioning the commander in chief at a dangerous moment.

The action was yet another constitutional challenge of the president by the Democratic-led House after its historic vote in December to impeach Mr. Trump, and as the Senate was preparing for a trial on whether to remove him. The debate over war powers raged a week after the president ordered a strike against Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s top security commander, a major provocation taken without informing Congress that has had a cascade of consequences.

Amid the heightened tensions with Iran, Democrats vowed to impose another check on the president, voicing grave concerns that without legislative action, Mr. Trump would careen toward war.

“If our loved ones are going to be sent to fight in any protracted war, the president owes the American public a conversation,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, a former C.I.A. and Pentagon analyst specializing in Shiite militias and the sponsor of the legislation. The measure, she added, “allows us to start that debate as our founders intended.”

In moving forward legislation invoking the War Powers Resolution, lawmakers reignited a bitter dispute that was as much about Mr. Trump’s volatile style of policymaking as it was about how to balance congressional prerogatives against a president’s power to wage war. That the deliberations unfolded during an election year and centered on an impeached president made them all the more extraordinary.

The measure itself was largely symbolic, without the force of law and unlikely to tie Mr. Trump’s hands even if the Senate endorsed it. The Senate could separately move as soon as next week to take up a similar resolution sponsored by Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia.

But the debate it brought to the House floor was the latest in which lawmakers, citing their obligations as a coequal branch of government, voiced deep skepticism about a potentially devastating military conflict. It echoed the searing disputes over United States involvement in Vietnam and in the run-up to the Iraq war, when Congress — then as now dubious about intelligence cited as grounds for military action — contested the scope of presidential war powers.

Early Thursday, as yet another censure from the House loomed, Mr. Trump lashed out at Speaker Nancy Pelosi and urged House Republicans on Twitter to vote down “Crazy Nancy Pelosi’s War Powers Resolution.”

In a striking display of loyalty, Republicans equated support for the measure with emboldening America’s enemies, and embraced an argument that top administration officials have made privately to lawmakers, that questioning the president’s authorization to confront Iran militarily is dangerous and unpatriotic.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, singled out Ms. Pelosi for calling the strike a “needless provocation” earlier in the week.

“What is a provocation,” Ms. Cheney said, “is the introduction of this resolution, which sows doubt about America’s resolve and makes war more likely.”

The criticism was similar to one Mr. Trump made earlier in the day at the White House, when he charged that in raising concerns about his actions, Democrats were effectively siding with General Suleimani.

“Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats wanted to defend him,” the president said, although neither has done so. “I think that’s a very bad thing for this country.”

His comments came not long after Ms. Pelosi told reporters on Capitol Hill that General Suleimani was “a terrible person,” even as she insisted the war powers debate was vital.

“It’s not about how bad they are,” she said of the Iranians, “it’s about how good we are, protecting the people in a way that prevents war and does not have us producing, again and again, generations of veterans who are suffering because of it.”

The acrimony on the House floor on Thursday highlighted the deep mistrust between the executive and legislative branches.

In recent days, Democratic lawmakers, joined by two Republican senators, have accused the president and his top military officials of dismissing Congress’s role as a coequal branch of government. Lawmakers were furious at the White House’s failure to confer with Congress before the strike, as well as a classified document notifying them of the move. Their ire was only raised on Wednesday by a pair of briefings with Mr. Trump’s national security team.

In one of the briefings, Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah said, administration officials, openly contemptuous of lawmakers, were unwilling to engage in a genuine discussion about a possible military escalation in the Middle East. Their message, Mr. Lee said, was, “Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran. If you do, you will be emboldening Iran.”

The resolution passed on Thursday would not constrain Mr. Trump’s constitutional ability to mobilize forces to act in the face of an imminent threat. That language has become particularly fraught in recent weeks, as administration officials have insisted that the president approved the strike that killed General Suleimani to guard against a looming attack. They have also argued that the action was covered under an authorization of military force passed by Congress in 2002 to approve invading Iraq.

Republican argued that Mr. Trump acted well within his authority.

“If we’re going to be serious about keeping this country safe, absolutely there’s a role for Congress to play,” said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican. “But you’ve got to support the efforts of your commander in chief to carry out his constitutional duty, which he has to keep this country safe.”

But with the administration refusing to detail what exactly that threat was, Democratic lawmakers, as well as Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, and Mr. Lee, have grown increasingly skeptical of the justification behind the strike.

Mr. Trump offered a fresh rationale on Thursday, claiming without offering evidence that the Iranians were “looking to blow up our embassy” in Baghdad.

Normally, legislation enacted by House Democrats that the Trump administration opposes never gets a vote in the Senate because the Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, refuses to bring it up for a vote. But the War Powers Resolution takes away that option by saying that if one chamber passes such a measure, the other must vote on it within 18 days.

Still, the House measure could amount to little more than a statement of principle, without the force of law.

House Democrats opted to use a concurrent resolution — the type that is considered to be enacted once both chambers approve it, and is never presented to the president for his signature — rather than a joint resolution, which Mr. Trump could veto.

“This is a statement of the Congress of the United States, and I will not have that statement be diminished by whether the president will veto it or not,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that to have legal effect, an action of Congress must be presented to the president for his signature or veto. But Ms. Pelosi insisted on Thursday, without elaborating, that the House measure would have legal teeth.

Only three Republicans — Representatives Matt Gaetz and Francis Rooney, both of Florida, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky — along with the House’s lone independent, Representative Justin Amash, joined Democrats in supporting the measure. Eight Democrats, the majority of them freshmen from conservative-leaning districts, broke ranks to oppose it.

“Today’s War Powers Resolution is a nonbinding resolution that simply restates existing law and sends the message that war is imminent,” Representative Max Rose, Democrat of New York, said in a statement explaining his opposition. “I refuse to play politics with questions of war and peace.”

Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution in 1973 over President Richard M. Nixon’s veto during the Vietnam War, when Americans were deeply torn over a conflict in which they found themselves deeply entrenched. The law was meant to empower Congress to pass legislation that directs a president to terminate military action unless lawmakers have explicitly voted to authorize it.

Since then, it has been broadly understood that Congress must use joint resolutions to try to terminate a war, essentially meaning that it takes the votes of two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers — the amount needed to override a veto, which is politically far more difficult to achieve.

But lawmakers have historically declined to even try to use the War Powers Resolution to bring a halt to unauthorized military conflicts abroad. As the nation plunged into war in the Middle East under President George W. Bush, even amid skepticism about the intelligence that led the United States into the conflicts, Congress approved new, wide-ranging authorizations of military force.

“I fought in a war started by a president with false and trumped up intelligence,” said Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former Marine who served in Iraq. “We cannot let this president do the same.”

In the Republican-controlled Senate, Mr. Kaine’s resolution faces an uphill climb, but the administration briefing delivered to senators Wednesday so enraged Mr. Lee and Mr. Paul that they said they would support it. The resolution would also mandate that Mr. Trump terminate military action against Iran unless Congress voted to authorize it.

The support of the two libertarian-leaning senators, who have long clamored for Congress to rein in presidential war powers, means that Democrats, who control 47 votes, are in striking distance of the majority needed to pass it.

Two other Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Todd Young of Indiana, said they were considering voting for Mr. Kaine’s resolution. But his version is a joint resolution that Mr. Trump could veto.

Because the measures put forward by Mr. Kaine and the House are different, it is possible that Congress will have to vote on both versions.

Last year, in a rare invocation of the law, the Senate and the House both passed a joint resolution to force Mr. Trump to end support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war. But Mr. Trump vetoed it, and an override vote in the Senate failed 53 to 45.