White House sends Congress mixed messages on Iran war votes

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Article Summary
President Donald Trump told lawmakers to “vote with their hearts” on war powers legislation, but the White House is playing hardball with Republican defectors.

Shortly after the White House issued a formal veto threat warning the House against voting to repeal the 2002 Iraq war authorization, President Donald Trump contradicted his staff. The president tweeted that lawmakers should “vote with their hearts” on repealing the 2002 authorization, a longtime bete noire for Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. 

While the House passed Lee’s legislation 236-166 today, only 11 Republicans found it in their hearts to support repealing the authorization that the White House used as the legal justification to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad earlier this month.

One of those Republicans, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., is a close Trump ally who has found himself in hot water with the White House in recent weeks for siding with Democrats on other Iran war powers issues. That includes co-sponsoring legislation with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., to ban funding for offensive military action against Iran absent congressional authorization, which the House also passed 228-175 today.

Three of Gaetz’s Republican colleagues joined him in voting for the legislation, which was championed by the progressive caucus and a broad coalition of anti-war groups: Reps. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky.

The four wayward Republicans sided with Democrats on the bill despite a Trump administration briefing for the Republican conference on Tuesday warning them to vote no. At the conference, the Trump administration officials argued that the Khanna-Gaetz provision would have prevented the president from taking out Soleimani if Democrats had succeeded in their initial efforts to attach the provision to a defense authorization bill last year. 

“I have real concerns that if that would ever go forward, it would tie the president’s hands, that America would be weaker,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told Al-Monitor today at a press conference. “Let’s compare this — what is on the floor today — [to] tying the president’s hands when he had intelligence of what Soleimani was going to do in the future, to deny him the ability to do it.”

Democrats agree with the White House and McCarthy’s assessment that the Khanna-Gaetz legislation would have prevented Trump from killing Soleimani, which they argue resulted in a dangerously escalatory spiral with Iran. But Gaetz himself — who supported Trump’s Soleimani strike — rejects that analysis, arguing that his bill would have had no bearing on the attack.

“The Khanna-Gaetz amendment would not have prevented President Trump from killing Soleimani because it was a strike in self-defense,” the Florida Republican’s office told Al-Monitor.

After a series of classified briefings earlier this month, Democrats rejected the Trump administration’s assertion that the strike was an act of self-defense, calling on the White House to declassify the evidence — so far to no avail.

And while Gaetz has strongly defended Trump’s broader Iran policy, he has blamed White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland for keeping him off the defense advisory team for the president’s ongoing impeachment trial in the Senate. Ueland blasted Gaetz in Politico for siding with Democrats to pass a separate Iran war powers resolution 224-194 earlier this month.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has said that he has enough Republican votes to pass similar legislation in the Senate under the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which allows any lawmaker to force a vote on foreign military interventions that Congress has not authorized.

Unlike the Iran war powers resolution, Lee’s repeal of the Iraq war authorization and the Khanna-Gaetz bill are likely dead on arrival in the Senate. But the White House’s twin veto threats indicate that the tug of war between the executive and legislative branches over war powers is becoming more intense than it has in decades.

The White House’s Khanna-Gaetz veto threat argued that the bill “would undermine the administration’s reestablishment of deterrence with Iran, which could perversely make violent conflict with Iran more likely.”

It went on to argue that it would “hinder the president’s ability to protect United States diplomats, forces and interests in the region from the continued threat posed by Iran and its proxies.” Similarly, the veto threat against Lee’s Iraq war authorization repeal argues that it would remove “critical authorities for the United States to defend itself and its partner forces as they carry out their missions against terrorist threats emanating from Iraq and in support of a stable, democratic Iraq.”

Democrats counter that neither bill would limit Trump’s constitutional authorization to defend against imminent Iranian attacks.

The intensified debate has also prompted Democratic leaders to take a second look at adding the Lee and Khanna legislation to the 2021 defense authorization bill after removing the language from last year’s legislation as part of a compromise with the Republican-held Senate. 

“We didn’t believe it was absolutely essential this year,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told Al-Monitor. “We do believe it is absolutely essential, however, to articulate once again … that going to war, sending our military to war, is a decision that the constitutional framers saw was Congress’ to make.”

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., noted that he is open to including both provisions in the 2021 defense authorization bill, which the House is expected to vote on in May.

“It’s a fight worth relitigating,” said Smith. “I’m not 100% committed at this point — do we give them half, or do we want to find a path to keep pushing these issues? I think they’re important.”

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Found in: Trump, Iran-US tensions

Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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