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Both parties scored political points in war powers debate

Senate debate was feisty, fierce and principled — and transparently tailored for partisan effect

An amendment offered by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., spiced up debate on the annual Defense bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
An amendment offered by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., spiced up debate on the annual Defense bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — The Senate’s debate last week on presidential war powers was substantive, serious and passionate — with the added benefit of enabling each party to score some political points.

The debate pertained to whether and how to hem in President Donald Trump’s authority to attack Iran amid heightened tensions in the Middle East that spiked this month when Iran shot down a U.S. drone and Trump pulled up just short of launching a counterattack.

Those tensions were a backdrop to the Senate’s debate this week on its fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill, a $750 billion policy measure that the Senate voted 86-8 to pass on Thursday.

[Senate rejects efforts to limit Trump’s ability to launch war with Iran]

Red meat

On one side of the debate were Democratic senators, backed by a handful of Republicans, who supported an amendment by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall.

Udall’s amendment said, in essence: the president cannot attack Iran without congressional authorization except in response to an attack on America or its armed forces.

“Congress gets to approve or disapprove of wars, period,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer in a floor speech.

Several Republicans falsely said on the Senate floor Thursday morning that the Udall amendment would not permit Americans to defend themselves, even though the language explicitly said the president could act in self-defense in certain circumstances.  

But the Republicans also raised more serious questions about the Udall amendment. What if the president needed to respond to an attack not on U.S. soil or U.S. troops but instead on U.S. citizens or diplomats abroad, they asked. What if Iran were to attack an American ally such as Israel? What if terrorists were planning an attack from Iranian soil?

In these cases, they asked, would the president need to get votes of both houses of Congress before he could act, even if a timely response were required? What if Congress was on recess at the time? 

Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in a floor speech Thursday that Udall’s amendment could give Iran “the green light for attacks, as long as they are not on our troops.”

The Senate was doing what it rarely does nowadays: holding a meaty and meaningful exchange. It was also feisty, fierce and principled — and transparently tailored for partisan effect.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech of his own that the Udall amendment was “half baked and dangerous” and “completely absurd.” He said its definition of self-defense was “laughingly narrow.” He said it was about making Trump, not Iran, the enemy.

“Stop obsessing about Donald Trump for a moment,” McConnell snapped at Democrats.

Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton was similarly up in arms. His arguments, however sincerely held, were red meat for red states.

Cotton called Udall’s amendment “appeasement” and an “attempt to disarm our troops” and to “empower the ayatollahs” in Iran.

“This amendment embodies irresolution, weakness, timidity and diffidence,” he said. 

Cotton asked why, if Democrats were interested in legislating limits on all presidents’ war powers and not just Trump’s, they had limited their amendment’s application to war against Iran.

“The root of this amendment is Trump Derangement Syndrome,” he said.

Republicans said the audience for the Senate’s debate in Tehran was as important as that in the United States and the geopolitical reverberations were perhaps more important than the domestic political ones.

The Pentagon came out this week in opposition to Udall’s amendment. John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a June 26 letter to Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, that Udall’s proposal “could embolden Iran to further provocations.”

Solace in loss

The Senate did not adopt the Udall amendment on Friday in a vote subject to a 60-vote threshold. But if it had become law, it is not clear that it would have had an actual effect, despite the hue and cry from Republicans about its adverse implications and Democrats’ contentions about its positive significance.

That’s because the president would probably have said, with or without merit, that he would not heed the provision. He would doubtless argue that it would infringe on his constitutional duty to defend the country’s interests.

It is a setback the Democrats undoubtedly foresaw — but they can make the case to their supporters that they fought the good fight to push back against those who are arguing for military action against Iran.

They can also contend that they defended Congress’s war-powers prerogatives, something they value in general but never more so than with Trump in the White House.

Indeed, Democrats attached so much political importance to the Iran war power issue that they prevailed upon McConnell, after much pleading and threats of filibuster, to allow them to hold the vote on Friday and to retroactively include the amendment, if it were adopted, in the NDAA bill after passage.

The reason for the delay: Several Democrats were unable to attend votes on Wednesday and Thursday due to their party’s first presidential primary debates on those nights.

Romney rides in

The GOP countered Udall’s proposal with an amendment by Romney that the Senate overwhelmingly approved, 90-4, Thursday.

The choice of Romney, who is not on the first string of GOP national security voices in the Senate, was an unusual one. But the one-time Republican presidential nominee pulled his mission off adroitly.

Romney said in a floor speech that his one-sentence amendment reaffirmed the president’s war powers.

“Amounts authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used to ensure the ability of the Armed Forces of the United States to defend themselves, and United States citizens, against attack by the government, military forces, or proxies of a foreign nation or by other hostile forces,” it says.

Romney said the Constitution requires that Congress alone can declare war but, he added, the Constitution also provides the president with authority to respond in self-defense in some circumstances without congressional authorization. 

He said up front that his aim was not to authorize force against Iran.   

Romney’s amendment was broader than Udall’s. Romney’s would stipulate that the military can not only defend itself, as Udall’s said, but also U.S. citizens, which Udall’s did not include. Romney’s did not say those U.S. citizens would have to be on U.S. soil.

Neither Udall’s nor Romney’s amendment would expressly permit a military strike to defend a U.S. ally in the Mideast or to respond to an attack on another country’s merchant ship.

But, significantly, Romney’s did not disallow such responses.

Romney darkly implied that Udall’s amendment is “clearly intended to limit the president in some other ways which he has not yet explained to this body.”

Romney’s amendment appeared to be a statement of the obvious about what the U.S. armed forces are authorized to do.

But if the statement was obvious, it was also politically useful. It gave Republicans something to support on the floor, instead of just opposing Udall’s proposal. And Romney’s amendment was so unassailably written that all but a handful of Democrats voted for it, if skeptically.

If Democrats scored political points from this week’s debate, Trump and his fellow Republicans also received a boost from the proceedings. 

The Senate is on record rejecting a Democratic attempt to rebuff the president.  And the Senate also overwhelmingly backed a reaffirmation of Trump’s authority as commander in chief in the form of Romney’s amendment.

And all of this activity occurred in the context of passing a defense authorization bill that endorses spending the full $750 billion that Trump had proposed for national defense.

The House will vote next month on the House Armed Services’ NDAA, and that chamber is likely to amend its bill with language similar to Udall’s on Iran war powers.

So the issue will still be in play when House and Senate negotiators write the final bill. For now, though, both sides declared victory and went home for the holiday. 

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