Friday morning was an unusual one for observers of the United States Senate. The longest vote in the chamber’s history, in which several of the deliberative body’s sacrosanct rules and traditions were bent, resulted in a somewhat foregone conclusion, and with it, another abdication of congressional responsibility. An amendment requiring the president receive explicit congressional approval before attacking Iran got 50 votes after more than 10 hours of open-house voting. It needed 60, and failed.
The amendment, which would have been retroactively attached to the National Defense Authorization Act were it to have passed, is a top priority for both Democrats generally and Republican doves specifically. Republican leaders relented, holding the vote early, so Senators could get out of Dodge for the July 4 recess, and keeping the floor open, so four others could return from this week’s Democratic debates in Miami. Only four Republicans— Susan Collins (R-ME), Mike Lee (R-UT), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Rand Paul (R-KY)— broke ranks to support the measure.
For supporters, the fight to reestablish Congress’ role in war-making goes back to the Democrat-controlled House. On Wednesday, the House voted to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which three presidents have used since on dozens of military engagements in fourteen different countries. Still, Senators in the less-than-supermajority did not hold back.
“A bipartisan majority of the Senate today sent an important message to President Trump,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who briefly presided over proceedings, a rarity for any member of the minority. “You do not have a blank check to pursue another endless war in the Middle East.” Added Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), “we showed a majority of the Senate believes the President is not the king, and can’t go to war on his own.” On Thursday, Kaine called a potential war with Iran “a colossal mistake.” Republicans, like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), aren’t wild about the idea either.
The administration has asserted, for some time now, that the nearly two-decade old AUMF already authorizes such a conflict. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleges Iran has ties to al-Qaeda, the only proscribed organization listed by name in the far-reaching act. President Trump went further on Monday, telling The Hill, point blank, that he need not even notify Congress before initiating an attack. “I do like keeping them abreast, but I don’t have to do it legally,” he said. His ability to nearly take the country to war last week, before abruptly calling off the mission with minutes to spare, may have proved that theory.
Indeed, theoretically, Congress— not the President— must declare war. Theoretically, the President must at least notify Congress within 48 hours of initiating an attack. This is, of course, only theoretical, as constitutional provisions and legal statutes must be enforced in order to be effective. In reality, dating back the better part of a century, Congress has delegated its authority, and ceded its power, to increasingly omnipotent executives. If the administration, or those within it, are truly set on starting an already deeply-unpopular war, there may be no stopping them.