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New War Powers Resolution Gains Key GOP Support, Boosting Chances Of Senate Passage

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced a resolution forcing President Trump to seek congressional consent before taking new military action against Iran.
J. Scott Applewhite

A Democratic-led Senate resolution to limit the president's war powers in the wake of escalated tensions with Iran has won support from several key GOP members to potentially gain passage in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Todd Young of Indiana and Susan Collins of Maine have all signed on as co-sponsors to the measure led by Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

That would bring the total number of supporters for the measure to 51, a simple majority of the Senate needed for passage. The resolution would require the president to seek congressional approval before another military-led strike against Iran.

"The good news is this: We now have a majority of colleagues — Democratic and Republican — who will stand strong with the principle that we shouldn't be at war without a vote of Congress, and that's a very positive thing," Kaine said.

The move comes after President Trump greenlighted a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general earlier this month, which led to increased tensions with Tehran. Iran responded days later by launching more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two U.S. military bases in Iraq, which resulted in no casualties.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved a similar resolution mostly along a party-line vote directing President Trump to seek consent from Congress before taking new military action against Iran. However, that resolution was nonbinding. If the House approved the new Senate version, it would carry with it the force of law.

Still, this Senate version faces its own, new obstacles. It could eventually fail with a veto from the president without support of a supermajority of either chamber. However, Kaine said even with a veto, the measure could still send a strong message to the president to seek lawmaker approval on such actions and potentially influence future decisions.

Kaine filed an initial version of his war powers resolution on Jan. 3. However, he revised it to gain new Republican support and filed an updated version days later. That second version incorporated suggestions from the new Republican co-sponsors.

Kaine said he is still working to gain additional Republican support.

"I do have a number of others that are thinking about it," Kaine said.

Republican Todd Young, a Marine Corps veteran, says his military background led him to support the revised war powers measure. He said it affirms a provision of the Constitution's Article I, which gives Congress the power to declare war.

"Making sure that our men and women in uniform know that me and Congress have their backs, it's really important to me as someone who served in the U.S. Marine Corps," Young said. He later added, "I think it's essential that Congress, from time to time, reaffirms our Article I responsibilities and affirms our support for our men and women in uniform as we contemplate potentially putting them in harm's way."

The war powers concern is also tied to a long-running debate on whether the president should be relying on war powers issued in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Congress approved wide-ranging Authorization for Use of Military Force efforts in 2001 and 2002. And Trump administration officials have maintained the president already has the authority to take action against Iran under the 2002 authorization.

Kaine said at minimum, service members deserve a debate on whether the U.S. should enter into new wars.

"What they don't deserve is blundering, inching towards accidentally escalating into another war in the Middle East. So we are doing what we ought to do by our troops and their families by taking this more seriously than we have in the past," Kaine said. "We've been in autopilot in wars for 18 years."

Sen. Collins said she has previously supported war powers measures and moved to support Kaine's newest effort after additional talks with the Virginia senator to adjust the resolution's language.

"Over the past decade, Congress has too often abdicated its constitutional responsibilities on authorizing the sustained use of military force," Collins said in a statement. "Although the President as Commander in Chief has the power to lead and defend our armed forces and to respond to imminent attacks, no President has the authority to commit our military to a war."

Collins was also among the Republicans who in June supported an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to require congressional approval for action against Iran. Lee, Paul and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas also broke ranks to support it, but the effort ultimately failed by a vote of 50 to 40.

On Tuesday, Collins reiterated that Congress should be involved in such critical military actions, but the resolution still allows the president to respond in cases of self-defense.

"Congress cannot be sidelined on these important decisions," Collins said. "The Kaine resolution would continue to allow the President to respond to emergencies created by aggression from any hostile nation, including Iran, and to repel an imminent attack by Iran or its proxy forces."

Last week, Paul and Lee jointly said they were on board with the new Kaine war powers measure after a contentious closed-door briefing on Iran with Trump administration officials. Lee said he found the briefing, which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, "insulting and demeaning," forcing him to support the new Kaine measure.

In a joint opinion piece in The Washington Post Tuesday evening, Kaine and Lee said Congress can no longer shirk its responsibility to debate war, and in this case, a potential war with Iran.

"If the United States is to order our troops into harm's way again, we should at least have an open debate about whether a war with Iran, or indeed any war, is truly in our national interest," they said. "Our resolution puts a simple statement before the Senate. We should not be at war with Iran unless Congress authorizes it. If senators are unwilling to have this debate — because a war vote is hard or opinion polls suggest that their vote might be unpopular — how dare we order our troops to courageously serve and risk all?"

Senators on Tuesday were unclear on when the measure could receive a vote. Kaine suggested that if the measure cleared a major procedural hurdle, it could receive a vote as early as Wednesday, but the effort seemed unlikely.

But under other procedural rules, the measure could be brought up for a vote as early as next Tuesday, Jan. 21. However, with the Senate weighing the start of a potential impeachment trial of President Trump that day, it has put that timing also in question. As a result, it's possible the vote could be shifted to after the Senate trial, which could last several weeks.

Meanwhile, as members continue to raise questions about recent military actions with Iran, several State Department officials on Wednesday morning are slated to meet with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
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