Senate invokes War Powers Act in vote to restrain Trump’s military actions in Iran

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sponsored the measure, which was delayed by President Trump's impeachment trial.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

President Trump’s ability to use military force against Iran would be restricted unless he first received congressional approval, according to a bipartisan resolution approved by the Senate on Thursday.

But Trump is certain to veto the resolution, and it is unlikely that either the House or Senate would have the two-thirds majority needed to override him, making Thursday’s vote more of a symbolic rebuke.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), gained steam in the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani in early January. A vote was delayed by the impeachment trial of Trump, which under Senate rules had to take precedence over any other legislative action. It passed Thursday 55-45, with eight Republicans joining all Democrats in support.


The resolution asserts that Congress must be consulted for a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of military force before the president can engage in “hostilities” against Iran. It specifies that the president can still act to defend against “imminent attack.”

The vote was the latest in the longstanding power struggle between the legislative branch and the executive branch over the use of the military overseas.

“It’s not really even about the president. It’s about Congress,” Kaine said. “It’s about Congress fully inhabiting our Article 1 role [in the Constitution] to declare war, and taking that deliberation seriously.”

Congress has let its power to declare war granted by the Constitution “atrophy” by failing to exercise it, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said.

Democrats passed the resolution with the help of Republicans frustrated that Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel provided few specific details behind closed doors last month about what imminent threat existed that warranted Suleimani’s killing. The attack set off several tense days of concerns about how Iran would respond.

The administration said the killing, which occurred in Iraq, was covered under previous authorizations for the use of military force that Congress passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.


Opponents of the resolution warned it would be viewed internationally as Congress tying the president’s hands and opening the door for bad actors to strike with impunity.

“We are playing with fire,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.

Trump also urged the Senate not to pass the resolution.

“If my hands were tied, Iran would have a field day. Sends a very bad signal. The Democrats are only doing this as an attempt to embarrass the Republican Party. Don’t let it happen!” he tweeted.

Kaine rejected the idea that it sends a negative signal, saying after committing American troops for nearly two decades in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight terrorism, “no one can question whether the United States will protect ourselves and our allies. But the choice of when to fight wars, and when to use other available tools, is always a question of such importance that the most careful deliberation is warranted. ... That’s not too much to ask, for us to deliberate carefully.”

The Senate resolution differs from one passed by the House with bipartisan support in the wake of the drone strike. The two cannot be reconciled, so the House would now need to pass the Senate resolution for it to be sent to the president’s desk. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that he expects to bring the resolution up for a House vote.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) initially pursued a type of nonbinding House resolution in early January that did not require the president’s signature and would have been largely symbolic. The Senate version would be binding, but is subject to presidential veto.

The War Powers Act of 1973 allowed Kaine to force a vote on his measure over the objections of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who urged colleagues to oppose it in a Senate floor speech Wednesday. He called the resolution the “bluntest tool available to make a political statement against the president.”

Kaine’s resolution leaves in place the two broadly written authorizations for military force passed after 9/11 to fight Al Qaeda and Iraq. Those authorizations have been used — critics say misused — by multiple presidents to justify numerous military actions far outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, without consulting Congress.