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4 Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to rein in Trump on Iran

Vox.com logo Vox.com 6/28/2019 Li Zhou
Mitch McConnell wearing a suit and tie: US President Donald Trump talks to the press as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on after the Republican luncheon at the US Capitol on January 9, 2019, in Washington, DC. © Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images US President Donald Trump talks to the press as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on after the Republican luncheon at the US Capitol on January 9, 2019, in Washington, DC.

Senate Republicans were put on the spot this week about whether they believe the president should be required to consult Congress before ordering a strike against Iran. It’s clear, from the outcome of a Friday vote, that most of them don’t.

Senators this week voted on a measure that would make it mandatory for the White House to obtain congressional approval in order to move forward with military action against Iran. The majority of Republicans opposed it, though Sens. Rand Paul (KY), Mike Lee (UT), Susan Collins (ME), and Jerry Moran (KS) joined with Democrats to support it. The measure, which needed 60 votes to pass, wound up failing, with 50 votes in favor and 40 votes against (10 other lawmakers had already skipped town for recess).

Echoing a position that some Republicans have expressed openly in this past, Friday’s vote confirmed that the majority of Senate Republicans aren’t interested in checking the president when it comes to war powers, despite a vote earlier this year that indicated some breaks on this subject. In the context of rising tensions with Iran, this position has Democrats incredibly concerned.

The amendment, if passed, would have curbed the president’s ability to advance a strike on his own. Every president since George W. Bush has been relying on a 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, approved by Congress in the days after 9/11 to justify a variety of conflicts in the Middle East. Lately, there’s been a movement to rein in the president’s power on this front — particularly when it comes to potential conflict with Iran. The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that allocates funds for the Department of Defense, was such an attempt. Trump, if he decided to pursue a conflict with Iran, would likely continue to rely on the 2001 AUMF.

Democrats are particularly worried that Trump’s recent comments and action toward Iran could lead him to “bumble” into a war in the region.

“Small provocations in the Middle East can spin out of control. Our country has learned that the hard way,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a recent floor speech. “When the President is surrounded by hawkish advisers like [National Security Adviser] John Bolton and Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo, the danger is even more acute.”

The vote, which Democrats were able to secure by threatening to torpedo the defense funding bill altogether, comes as tensions between the US and Iran have escalated in recent weeks, culminating in Trump just barely pulling back from a strike earlier this month.

The House, which has yet to vote on its version of the defense package, could still attempt to attach the amendment after it returns from the July Fourth recess.

The failure of this amendment has major consequences: Without additional pushback from Congress, the White House could keep making the case that it’s more than capable of authorizing a potential military strike on Iran entirely on its own.

Republicans, it seems, aren’t too concerned.

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