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The House sent a major message about checking the president’s war powers on Iran

Democrats overwhelmingly want Trump to obtain congressional approval before further military action.

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House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) walk from the House floor where members debate the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) to the speaker’s office in the US Capitol on December 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. 
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Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The House of Representatives on Thursday sent President Donald Trump a decisive message on conflict with Iran, voting overwhelmingly to block his ability to engage in further military action without congressional approval.

Three Republicans and one independent joined Democrats to advance a war powers resolution introduced by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) that closely mirrors a proposal from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) in the Senate. The final vote total was 224-194, and while Democrats were broadly united, eight moderate members of the caucus ultimately defected.

The measure, which says that Trump should wind down any military engagement with Iran unless Congress votes to approve it, directly pushes back on his decision to kill Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani without consulting lawmakers last week. It’s not legally binding — the sponsors chose to introduce a non-binding “concurrent resolution” that wouldn’t require Trump’s signature — so if anything, it’s more of a message.

The message, in this case, focuses both on Trump’s actions, as well as growing concerns from lawmakers that the legislative branch has ceded too much of its war powers authority to the executive in recent decades.

In addition to the vote on Thursday, the House is poised to consider measures from progressive Reps. Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee in the coming days, according to a letter Speaker Nancy Pelosi released on Wednesday. Khanna’s resolution would cut off federal funds for any unilateral military action against Iran, and Lee’s would repeal a 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was passed by Congress in order to send troops to Iraq.

The Senate, too, could vote on its war powers resolution as early as next week. Trump would likely veto these measures even if they were to pass both chambers, but they still make a notable point about where Congress stands on the subject as the tension between the US and Iran grows. Trump on Wednesday announced that his administration is considering harsher economic sanctions against Iran in response to the missile strikes the country took on a US military base in Iraq after Soleimani’s killing.

The bipartisan nature of Thursday’s vote is significant: Much like they did in the past to support an amendment from Khanna and Rep. Matt Gaetz in last year’s defense bill, a few Republicans joined with Democrats to approve this resolution. It suggests that some members of the GOP caucus are still willing to break with Trump on this particular front, including on the question of executive power, even as they’ve remained united on impeachment.

Though it won’t become law, the House resolution emphasizes Congress’s stance on the matter.

This week’s vote is Congress’s latest attempt to put a check on the president’s war powers

The Thursday House vote marks the latest in a series of attempts to check the president’s war powers, which have evolved significantly, in part, with the help of past congressional authorizations.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser explained, the expansion of these powers has also been enabled by the courts over the years, as well as legal opinions offered by the executive branch itself:

One consequence of judicial deference is that there is fairly little case law explaining when the executive branch can and cannot take military action. Instead, most of the legal opinions in this space were drafted by executive branch officials. According to Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the second Bush administration, “Practically all of the law in this area has been developed by executive branch lawyers justifying unilateral presidential uses of force.”

These lawyers, Goldsmith warned, “view unilateral presidential power very broadly.”

The focus of Slotkin’s resolution is pretty straightforward: It would require the president to gain congressional approval if he wanted to take additional military action against Iran, and would bar him from doing so without a declaration of war or other legal authorization. It includes exceptions for cases of self-defense and responses to imminent attacks.

“This resolution is intended to make clear that, if the President wants to take us to war, he must get authorization from Congress,” Slotkin said in a statement.

The measure follows a push from House progressives last year, who sought to include amendments in the national defense bill that would have similarly restrained the president’s ability to singlehandedly take military action in Iran, though these efforts were ultimately stripped out.

Lawmakers have also tried to draw boundaries limiting the use of past AUMFs that were approved after 9/11 and prior to the Iraq War. These authorizations, both of which are nearly 20 years old, have since been used to justify other military action across the Middle East.

As legal experts have told Vox, however, Congress can only do so much depending on how the administration interprets the various restraints that are passed. If Kaine’s measure is approved and signed into law, for example, it’s possible the administration could attempt to bypass it.

The vote on this resolution follows a briefing from the Trump administration about the airstrike against Soleimani that’s since prompted criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. On Thursday, Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul — who both voted for a similar resolution last year — announced that they would be voting in favor of Kaine’s war powers resolution in the Senate.