House Votes to Limit Trump's Authority to Order Strike on Iran

Bipartisan amendment co-drafted by frequent Trump supporter Rep. Matt Gaetz passes by 251 votes in favor and 170 against, requiring the president to receive Congress approval on using military force against Iran

President Donald Trump salutes as he steps off Air Force One as he arrives at General Mitchell International Airport, in Milwaukee, on Friday, July 12, 2019.
Alex Brandon,AP

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Friday to pass a bipartisan provision that would require President Donald Trump to gain approval from Congress before authorizing use of military force against Iran, the New York Times reported. 

The House passed the amendment to a broader defense policy bill by a vote of 251 to 170. As tensions continued to rise between Iran and the United States, lawmakers in Washington increasingly expressed concern over the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis and concern over leaving matters of war and peace solely in the hands of the executive branch.

The provision, however, does not limit Trump's authority to order a strike in the case of a response to an attack by Tehran on American forces, the report said.

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Most of the criticism is coming from the Democratic side of the aisle, but some Republicans have also raised questions and warned the White House against military action without Congress’ authorization.

Among the amendment's Republican supporters was Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, an often avid advocate of Trump, who drafted the amendment along with Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California. In an interview with Fox News, Gaetz qualified his position by saying: “We don’t think that any president should be able to keep the United States in war or any type of conflict beyond 60 days.”

In June, a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president concerned not with the escalation itself but the legality of military action against Iran. The senators wrote: “We want to reiterate that, as of this date, Congress has not authorized war with Iran and no current statutory authority allows the U.S. to conduct hostilities against the Government of Iran. To that end, we expect the administration to seek authorization prior to any deployment of forces into hostilities or areas where hostilities with Iran are imminent.”

The senators’ warning touches on a decades-old constitutional debate. The U.S. Constitution defines the president as the commander-in-chief of the military (Article II, Section 2), but states that Congress is the branch of government with the power “to declare war” (Article I, Section 8).

The current debate over the legality of military action against Iran revolves around the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a law passed by Congress in 2001 that gave then-President George W. Bush the authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” he deemed responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks (i.e., Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan). The concern on Capitol Hill is that the Trump administration will try to use this legislation as the legal basis for taking military action against Iran.

“Everyone knows it will be very difficult to get Congress to authorize another war. That’s why they probably think their best shot is using the 2001 law,” a congressional staffer involved in the discussions told Haaretz in June.

In 2014, the Obama administration used the AUMF law as its legal basis for military action in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State and other Islamist terror organizations. The administration came under fire from both political parties for doing so — but claimed it had no other choice, since Congress had failed to pass a new resolution providing the president with authorization for such actions.

In June, Trump had said he would not need congressional approval to attack Iran, a claim reversed by the new bipartisan provision.

On Wednesday, Iranian boats tried to stop a British oil tanker in the Gulf, in what was seen as a direct response to the British takeover of an Iranian tanker that was transporting oil to Syria near the Strait of Gibraltar last week.

Amir Tibon contributed to this report