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Ahead of House Iran war votes, Trump sends mixed messages

Despite veto threats, president urges lawmakers to vote their conscience on 2002 AUMF repeal

Anti-war demonstrators attend a rally outside the White House on Jan. 25. The action also took place in 153 cities in 20 countries for the Global Day of Protest. (Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images file photo)
Anti-war demonstrators attend a rally outside the White House on Jan. 25. The action also took place in 153 cities in 20 countries for the Global Day of Protest. (Aurora Samperio/NurPhoto via Getty Images file photo)

As the House prepares to vote Thursday on two measures that would constrain President Donald Trump’s ability to launch attacks on Iran, the White House sent out mixed messages about how it wants lawmakers to vote.

The House will debate and vote on two measures that take different approaches to limiting the Trump administration’s military options when it comes to Tehran, which remains outraged at the United States for the early January U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Iran’s most powerful general, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

One bill from Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., would bar funding to any unauthorized military operations against Iran. The other measure from Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., would repeal the 2002 Authorization For Use of Military Force in Iraq, which the Trump administration cited as part of its justification for killing Soleimani.

The White House issued veto threats Monday to the measures, arguing the Khanna bill would “undermine the administration’s reestablishment of deterrence with Iran [following the Soleimani killing], which could perversely make violent conflict with Iran more likely.”

[House approves resolution aimed at trimming Trump’s power on Iran]

The administration said repealing the 2002 authorization would undermine U.S. troops deployed to Iraq to combat Islamic State extremists even though a separate expansive 2001 anti-terrorism military authorization, passed after the 9/11 attacks, would remain in place. The Lee legislation would undermine “the president’s ability to defend United States forces and interests in the region against ongoing threats from Iran and Iranian-sponsored proxies,” reads the statement of administration policy.

Despite those veto threats, Trump in a Twitter post Wednesday urged House lawmakers to vote their conscience on the repeal of the 2002 authorization, which allowed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“We are down to 5000 soldiers, and going down, and I want everyone, Republican and Democrat, to vote their HEART!” Trump said of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.  

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Moving as amendments

Both the Lee and Khanna measures will be offered as amendments to a noncontroversial World War II medals bill that is back in the House after previously being amended in the Senate. Attaching the Iran-related measures as amendments to an underlying bill is aimed at avoiding a parliamentary motion to recommit by Republicans that would be aimed at dividing Democrats by having them vote on politically sensitive issues such as support for Israel.

Republicans complained vociferously this week about the Democratic procedural plan. On Tuesday, GOP lawmakers were blocked by Democrats from offering a series of unanimous consent requests to amend the proposed rule governing floor debate on the Iran measures to allow for a motion to recommit. The rule was ultimately adopted by a largely partisan 223-189 vote.

Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, voiced his frustration over the procedural maneuvering, telling CQ Roll Call he believed there had not been “an issue of significance” with no allowed amendments or motions to recommit allowed in 100 years.

“Basically, they’re so afraid of losing a motion to recommit, they’re willing to overturn 100 years of precedents in the House, beyond the substance of the issue,” he said.

Lawyers with the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs are worried the Khanna language might preclude information sharing with Israel on the Iranian threat, Thornberry said. But there is no method to address this concern without a motion to recommit allowed, he said.

While parties in the majority have previously used procedural tactics to limit input from the minority, Thornberry feels this time is different.

“Of course you have instances where you limit debate, you limit amendments, but never has it gone this far so that there is literally no alternative that can be considered,” he said. “It is politics, but there is institutional damage that is done by playing politics where you will not even allow a differing view from being considered.”

Others disagreed with Thornberry’s contention that Republicans are being deprived of a chance to have their say, particularly as they succeeded during bicameral conference negotiations last year over the annual defense policy bill in stripping out House-passed language from Khanna and Lee that was nearly identical to the measures being voted on this week.

“I think Congress has had plenty of time to figure out what to do about the 2002 AUMF as well as the 2001 AUMF,” said Stephen Wertheim, deputy director of Research and Policy at the newly formed Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates for fewer U.S. military interventions abroad. “In fact, members of Congress have very much considered this issue, and it is very urgent for them to vote on now.”

Future outlook

Since the 2002 authorization was passed, public sentiment has strongly moved away from the war in Iraq and the continuing U.S. troop presence there.

According to a new YouGov poll commissioned by the libertarian Charles Koch Institute, 60 percent of surveyed Americans either strongly oppose or somewhat oppose going to war with Iran, while 68 percent either strongly supported or somewhat supported “bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.”

Additionally, 47 percent believed a war with Iran would be “more costly” in terms of likely U.S. deaths and money spent than the war in Iraq, compared with 21 percent who believed it would be less costly. In conducting the survey from Jan. 10-13, YouGov interviewed 1,053 people.

A coalition of 46 progressive and libertarian organizations and faith-based communities, including J Street, the Defense Priorities Initiative and the Presbyterian Church, released a joint letter this week in support of Lee’s effort to repeal the 2002 authorization.

“Repealing the Iraq war authorization would be an important step in reasserting Congress’ constitutional duty to determine whether, where, and when the United States chooses to go to war,” the letter reads. “It would remove an outdated use of force authorization that is not required for any ongoing operations, while protecting against its abuse by this or any future president to justify unforeseen and unauthorized new wars.”

Trump campaigned in 2016 in part on withdrawing American troops deployed to the Middle East. All of the leading Democratic presidential contenders have said they would decrease the U.S. military footprint in the region, though with some notable differences between them on the degree to which they would continue U.S. counterterrorism actions such as drone strikes and special forces operations.

“I think the [House Democratic] caucus is more unified than ever heading into 2020” around issues related to war powers and Iran, Khanna told CQ Roll Call. “This was not a heavy lift. Yemen was a heavy lift,” he said, referring to the multi-year effort to build Democratic support around halting U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

The World War II medals bill with Iran-related amendments would not be a privileged measure in the Senate, so Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could ignore it and not have a vote.

However, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., has obtained the minimum necessary support for his own binding Iran War Powers legislation to pass the Senate. But with the impeachment trial still underway, it’s unclear when time on the Senate calendar could be found for debate and a vote on the privileged resolution, which would require Trump to immediately halt any military activities against Iran.

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Andrew Clevenger, Kathleen Bever, Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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