On Friday, in “the most important foreign policy vote in the United States Congress,” the Democrat-controlled House voted to reauthorize the often-contentious National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)— and tied President Trump’s war-making hands in doing so. Twenty Republicans voted with the majority on a bipartisan amendment to require the president to get congressional approval before attacking Iran. The bill now heads to the Senate, where it faces long odds, and the threat of a presidential veto.
Attempting to put to rest any legal or constitutional ambiguity, the amendment, passed 251-170, specifically states that no legislation has yet been passed, by this or any other Congress, authorizing a war or military strike against Iran. It further says that “no Federal funds may be used for any use of military force in or against Iran,” unless Congress declares war or otherwise authorizes an attack. “If my war hungry colleagues— some of whom have already suggested we invade Venezuela, North Korea, and probably a few other countries before lunchtime tomorrow,” argued Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a Trump ally, “if they’re so certain of their case against Iran, let them bring their authorization to use military force against Iran to this very floor.”
A second amendment, authored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), mandates the U.S. military withdraw aid to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. A similar resolution was passed by both houses of Congress in April, and subsequently vetoed by the president. Trump has since bypassed Congress in this regard, unilaterally authorizing an $8 billion “emergency” arms sale to the Saudis. He and his administration have also used America’s longstanding alliance with the kingdom, and the cold war with its Persian, Shia neighbor, to ratchet up tensions with Iran.
There was still plenty of opposition to the amendments Friday from most in the Republican minority. “It takes legitimate options off the table, shows America divided in the face of mounting Iranian threats, and makes our nation less safe,” argued Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The bill now heads to the Senate, which has also passed its own, larger version, lacking any such restraints on the use of force. Only four Senate Republicans supported a similar version of the measure, when it was voted down in late June.
The NDAA is considered must-pass by Congress, so much so that its paramount importance is usually enough to overcome any ideological or partisan disagreements. That Trump has already threatened to veto the House version of the bill illustrates the overwhelming odds it faces from here on out. Still, Trump and his administration— particularly, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo— continue to argue that not only does Congress not need to authorize a new war with Iran, it already has. Pompeo especially has attempted to make the case that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, passed days after the 9/11 attacks, does just this, citing dubious links between al-Qaeda and Iran. Gaetz and Khanna have captured the sense of the House that it does not. At this point, they’ll take any form of persuasion they can get to talk Trump out of another war of choice.