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Exclusive: Sen. Tom Udall plans to force a vote to block funding for war with Iran

The effort could cause a massive partisan fight over Iran.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), speaks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 4, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) speaks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 4, 2013, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the US and Iran engage in a weeks-long standoff, Senate Democrats are about to force the first vote on the question of going to war with Iran during the crisis.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration said it had intelligence showing that Iran planned to attack Americans in the Middle East. As a result, the US put an aircraft carrier, bomber planes, and anti-missile batteries in the region.

That, among other actions, increased fears of a major fight breaking out. And with noted Iran hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Trump administration, the worry was justified.

To ensure a war doesn’t break out, especially by the US shooting first, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) plans to put forward a measure restricting the use of federal funds for any “military operations in or against Iran” without congressional authorization, according to the amendment’s text exclusively seen by Vox. The measure is co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), a staunch critic of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and long-time advocate for giving Congress a bigger role in authorizing US wars.

“Starting a war with Iran would be a catastrophe worse than Iraq,” Udall told me. “Some members of the Trump foreign policy team seem to be openly hoping to provoke Iran into war. Fortunately, Congress is a co-equal branch that has the sole authority to declare war — so we don’t have to sit around and watch this administration spiral us into another endless conflict in the Middle East.”

“Congress must remind this administration ... that no one else is responsible but Trump for putting us on this blind campaign of escalation with no off-ramp,” says Murphy. “War with Iran at this point would be illegal and an utter disaster that makes our nation less safe.”

The measure includes exceptions for the use of force, such as if there’s “an imminent threat to the United States,” if troops are deployed to prevent an attack on America, or if troops need to rescue or remove Americans from harm’s way.

According to Senate aides, Udall will speak about his amendment and then bring it up for a vote during a Wednesday afternoon Senate Foreign Relations Committee discussion about a Syria bill. That will force the GOP-led panel’s members to vote for the first time about going to war with Iran during the standoff, albeit behind closed doors.

“Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has a chance to show that we’ve learned the lessons of Iraq, and that we are stepping up to take back our constitutional authority,” Udall said.

It’s a big moment, as voting on the amendment alone could be seen as a major rebuke to the Trump administration’s hardline stance against Iran — and could set up a tough partisan fight down the line.

The vote could further split Democrats and Republicans on Iran

It’s unclear if the amendment will pass. While all the committee’s Democrats will likely vote in favor of it, most Republicans on the panel are sure to reject it.

But Democrats hold out hope that two Republicans in particular might join their side.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a war skeptic who signed on to a previous Udall measure that does the same thing as the amendment, could possibly give a thumbs-up and buck his party. Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), a critic of America’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, has championed Congress’s role in authorizing wars before they start.

Still, members of the committee have already expressed divergent views on the issue, signaling a divided vote to come.

After a briefing with Bolton on Monday, administration ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted, “It is clear that over the last several weeks Iran has attacked pipelines and ships of other nations and created threat streams against American interests in Iraq. ... If the Iranian threats against American personnel and interests are activated we must deliver an overwhelming military response.”

Also on Monday Murphy tweeted that he too knows what the intelligence says. But he has a completely different take.

“I‘m listening to Republicans twist the Iran intel to make it sound like Iran is taking unprovoked, offensive measures against the US and our allies. Like it just came out of nowhere,” he said. “I’ve read the intel too. And let me be clear: That’s not what the intel says.”

In other words, Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on just how imminent the Iran threat really is based on the intelligence alone. That only naturally leads to disagreements about how necessary attacking Iran may be.

If the measure passes, it would send a message to the Trump administration and specifically Bolton, who before joining Trump’s team called for regime change in Iran. Even if it doesn’t, it’ll still be good to have lawmakers on record about how and if to go war with Iran when the chance of conflict isn’t zero.