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Could a congressional amendment have stopped Trump from striking against Iran?

Progressives say an amendment they proposed last year would have tied Trump’s hands on Iran.

President Donald Trump speaks at the signing ceremony of the National Defense Authorization Act at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on December 20, 2019.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In the wake of the airstrike against Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani this week, progressive backlash is cropping up — not only over the strike itself, but also over lawmakers’ past attempts to prevent it. Some on the left argue that an amendment proposed last year could have blocked the strike from happening — if only the rest of Congress had listened to them.

Experts say that’s not really the case. But that isn’t stopping progressives from directing their ire once more toward the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual must-pass bill that Congress approved last December without a provision curbing President Donald Trump’s ability to use military force against Iran.

The NDAA, legislation that establishes budgets for the military, was touted by some Democrats as the most “progressive” defense bill that Congress had approved in years — while others balked at voting for it because of the amendments that were left out. The bill ultimately passed the House and Senate with Democratic support, though 41 House Democrats, including several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wound up voting against the final version.

One of the omitted amendments, sponsored by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), would have barred Trump from using federal dollars for military action against Iran without congressional approval. Tara Golshan explained its significance at the time for Vox:

This is especially important as tensions with Iran have continued to escalate since Trump withdrew from the international nuclear deal last year, culminating with the downing of a US military drone and Trump nearly launching a military strike last month. The administration has also attempted to make connections between Iran and al-Qaeda. “Iran better be careful,” Trump said Friday, according to the White House press pool, continuing his aggressive rhetoric. “They’re treading on very dangerous territory.”

Although the measure was included in an earlier draft of the NDAA, it was later stripped out in the compromise version that both chambers of Congress went on to pass.

Khanna, one of the members who vocally opposed the NDAA in December, argued that his amendment would have prevented the US from using government funds to conduct the strike against Soleimani. Whether it would have been effective in actually doing so is uncertain, given Trump’s potential ability to bypass it.

In a statement to Vox, Khanna said that the executive branch has to seek the authorization of Congress to launch an offensive attack under the US Constitution and War Powers Resolution of 1973, but some administrations have abided and others haven’t.

“Given this administration’s lawless track record, it was particularly important that Congress include these amendments specifically prohibiting an offensive attack against Iran and repealing the authority Congress previously granted to attack Iraq,” Khanna said. “The importance of these amendments was evident by the extraordinary efforts that the White House and Pentagon put into opposing their inclusion in the NDAA.”

William Wechsler, director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, told Vox that Khanna’s assertion that his amendment would have legally barred Trump’s actions was incorrect.

“The bottom line is, the language as written, as designed, still had carve-outs for the War Powers Act and the ability to protect Americans from an imminent threat, and that is what the Trump administration has claimed is their rationale is for this,” Wechsler said. “The inherent legal right to self-defense exists under international law.”

The Trump administration has said that the strike, which killed multiple people, was meant to preempt attacks against American people and assets, but it has not offered any details or evidence of that assertion.

Wechsler added that had the amendment been included in the NDAA that finally passed, it would have had more political potency, but its practical and legal impacts would have been “modest, if not negligible.”

Moreover, Congress has for years ceded more and more ground to the president when it comes to the use of military force. “Unfortunately over the decades, on a bipartisan basis, what Congress has typically tended to maximize is its ability to push issues to the executive branch in such a way that the executive branch gets full responsibility and gives the legislative branch the full flexibility to criticize and not take responsibility,” Wechsler said.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) also sought to include an amendment in the NDAA that would limit the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF), which permits the president to take action against anyone responsible for or associated with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, arguing that it was too broad. Administrations have since used the AUMF to wage military action across the Middle East, efforts that have been seen as further expanding the executive branch’s war powers.

Senate Republicans have previously rejected efforts to curb the president’s ability to go to war with Iran

A major reason these amendments didn’t make it into the final NDAA is because Senate Republicans aggressively worked to strip them out.

This past July, the House passed its take on the NDAA, which did include both Khanna’s and Lee’s amendments. In June, however, Senate Republicans rejected a measure that would have required congressional approval for any additional funds for any military action that Trump was interested in taking against Iran. Additionally, they passed a pared-down NDAA that removed a number of other progressive priorities.

At the time, Republicans lawmakers emphasized that they were ambivalent about supporting a measure limiting the White House’s war powers, noting that they were concerned about too aggressively tying the administration’s hands.

President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law on December 20, 2019.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“I think flexibility is important here, but I think the White House needs to be able to make their case,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters in June. “It’s such a speculative question,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) noted last summer. Ultimately, four Senate Republicans — Sens. Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), Susan Collins (ME), and Jerry Moran (MS) — joined with Democrats to vote in favor of the amendment, while the majority of the conference opposed it.

Upon passage of the compromise NDAA in December, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, argued that legislative oversight of the administration had been one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers. Other amendments that were stripped out by the Senate included one withdrawing US support from the civil war in Yemen and another overturning the Trump administration’s ban on transgender troops.

“I fought for these provisions until the final moments, however, Senate Republicans and the White House were completely unwilling to negotiate. Instead, they threatened to kill the bill,” Smith said in a December statement.

The passage of the NDAA in December came as House Democrats sought to rack up legislative achievements as they also undertook an impeachment inquiry into Trump. Critics of the proposal argued that Democrats were “rolled” in the conference report between the House and Senate, according to Roll Call. Democrats also faced pressure from both a Republican-dominated upper chamber and the threat of a Trump veto.

The NDAA left progressives fuming. This pushback hasn’t gone away.

During the NDAA vote in December, many House progressives were not pleased with the outcome — and the airstrike that killed Soleimani has prompted these concerns to emerge again.

CPC co-chair Pramila Jayapal voted against the NDAA compromise in 2019, noting that its omissions made the legislation completely untenable. “I had originally hoped that we would be able to get other critically needed restraints on unauthorized and endless wars — through repealing the 2002 AUMF, working to end US participation in the war in Yemen, and stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia,” Jayapal said in a statement. “It would have been hard to vote for the bill with those provisions, but without them, it was impossible.”

Khanna, who was also one of the 41 Democrats who opposed the bill, said that approving the NDAA without the proposed amendments was a “colossal blunder” and called on Congress to reassert its authority.

Additionally, as Politico reported, more than 30 progressive and anti-war organizations — including MoveOn and Indivisible — expressed disagreement with the bill, too. “It is a blank check for endless wars, fuel for the further militarization of US foreign policy, and a gift to Donald Trump,” they wrote in their December statement.

The airstrike this week has revived questions about whether Democrats’ efforts to put a check on the president’s war powers could have prevented him from moving forward with such an act, which is widely seen by many as an escalation that could fuel further conflict. And while progressives sought to stymie it, their push in the defense bill might not have been enough to do so.

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