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Senate Establishes Precedent for Debating War Power Authority

Procedural vote sets ground rules for future debates over U.S. military intervention

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., was presiding over the Senate for the war powers debate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., was presiding over the Senate for the war powers debate. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate has figured out how it wants to debate efforts to stop U.S. military intervention overseas.

Senators found themselves in an unprecedented, but not unexpected, parliamentary situation Wednesday afternoon, faced with language in the statute of the War Powers Resolution that gave them no direction as to the terms under which amendments could be considered.

To resolve that problem, senators voted 96-3, to set a precedent declaring that amendments to such joint resolutions must meet the stringent test of germaneness.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee and others had been concerned about an unruly foreign policy debate that could go far afield of the underlying measure.

Officially, the Senate is considering a joint resolution that seeks to end U.S. support efforts for the war effort in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. But with the fate of the Yemen resolution murky in the House, it might be the precedent set Wednesday afternoon in the Senate that carries the most resonance.

Right after the Senate adopted the motion to proceed to the Yemen resolution, 60-39, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a set of parliamentary inquiries regarding the procedural restrictions (or the lack thereof).

Kicking off  a structured and scripted exchange with GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who was presiding over the Senate debate, McConnell cited a number of issues that he saw, “with the law governing the consideration of these types of resolutions. One of the biggest is the consideration of amendments.”

“Generally speaking, when the Senate considers a measure under statutory expedited procedures like the Budget Act, the Congressional Review Act, the Trade Act or the Arms Control Act, or even under the cloture rule, there are guardrails for the consideration of the measure and for amendments thereto,” Toomey said, reading from the script in the exchange.  “The Senate trades its normal procedure of unfettered debate and amendment, and the need for 60 votes to end debate and consideration for a more predictable, structured and streamlined process of consideration, and a majority threshold vote.”

Basically, the authors of the law that governs Congress’ war powers borrowed from another legislative framework that actually has limited amendments written in law, but this one did not have comparable provisions, or so went this line of reasoning. 

Once McConnell and Toomey finished explaining the situation, relying heavily on the Senate parliamentarians, Corker made a point of order that the amendments to the Yemen resolution and future war powers measures need to be germane, which Toomey put to the body for a vote, given the unusual scenario. And 96 of them signed off. 

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