WASHINGTON - The House voted Thursday to prevent President Donald Trump from taking additional military action against Iran, an opening move in a Democratic-led campaign to reassert congressional authority over the use of force abroad.
The 224-to-194 vote, which came a day after the administration's senior national security officials briefed lawmakers about the strike that killed a top Iranian commander, fell largely along party lines, with three Republicans and a Republican-turned-independent endorsing the resolution. Eight Democrats opposed the measure, which instructs Trump "to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military" unless Congress declares war or there is "an imminent armed attack upon the United States."
The administration, with the help of most Republicans, has argued forcefully against the effort, asserting that Trump, as commander in chief, had undisputed legal justification to kill Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad without Congress' prior approval. But Democrats and a handful of Republicans were so frustrated by the administration's resistance to fully involving Congress that the belated effort to engage Capitol Hill largely backfired - fueling momentum for Thursday's vote.
In the House, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., a close Trump ally who has publicly defended last week's strike on Soleimani, worked with Democrats after Wednesday's briefings to fine-tune the resolution, ultimately crossing the aisle on Thursday to support it.
"I support the president. Killing Soleimani was the right decision. But engaging in another forever war in the Middle East would be the wrong decision," Gaetz said, announcing his yes vote.
But the critical forum is the Senate, where Democrats are in the minority and will need the help of at least four Republicans to pass a similar war powers resolution. Put forward by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the measure could come up for a vote as early as next week.
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky have committed to supporting Kaine's resolution, fuming to reporters Wednesday that administration officials had failed to specify when, if ever, they might seek Congress' approval for military strikes.
Lee complained that officials had instead communicated that lawmakers "need to be good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public." He has called that position "absolutely insane" and "unacceptable."
Kaine said Thursday that he is discussing his resolution with Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Todd Young, R-Ind., in addition to Lee and Paul, and selectively changing the text - such as removing language that specifically addresses Trump by name - in hopes that doing so will build enough support to secure Senate approval.
Procedurally, it is likely that the House will have to take up the Senate's resolution, should it pass in that chamber, in order to send Trump a war powers resolution that has the weight of potential law. It is also extremely likely that, should they succeed, the president will veto it - and that Congress will not be able to muster enough votes to override that veto.
But Kaine sounded undeterred Thursday, arguing that Congress could still influence Trump's thinking even if supporters cannot override his veto. As evidence, he pointed to when Congress threatened to invoke its war powers to curtail U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
"He stopped doing what we were complaining about. It had an impact," Kaine said, noting that the administration stopped refueling Saudi jets. "President Trump may not care about Congress, but he does care about the American public . . . and if he sees a strong vote on this, and it goes to him, it's an expression not just of what we think but of what our constituents think."
At this point, however, Republicans and Democrats remain bitterly divided over whether Trump's strike was prudent and justified, or illegal and reckless, with the dispute coming down to whether Soleimani posed such an imminent threat to warrant going after him without the consent of Congress.
The administration insists it had a right to target Soleimani under the Congress's 2002 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) in Iraq and the president's constitutional right to self-defense of troops directly and imminently in harm's way. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the House would vote to repeal the 2002 AUMF "soon."
The war powers resolutions going through Congress recognize an exception for an imminent threat, but Democrats do not buy the Trump administration's argument that one existed - and they are upset with the administration for withholding intelligence from lawmakers that could inform their determination.
"We deserve the respect from the administration, and the Congress deserves by dint of the Constitution, the requirement of the Constitution, to consult Congress," Pelosi said, arguing that the administration's justification for the strike should be redacted and made available to the public, as there was "no reason for it to be classified."
Republicans, meanwhile, have endorsed the administration's approach, arguing that "this Congress leaks like the Titanic," as Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) put it, and thus lawmakers could not always be trusted with the most sensitive information.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued Thursday that the administration's briefers had provided lawmakers all the information they needed to support the strike.
"In terms of where there is an imminent threat, General Milley was compelling and chilling about what was going to happen and what had happened," Graham said, referring to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, who briefed lawmakers Wednesday, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and CIA director Gina Haspel.
"I think a third-grader could have believed there was an imminent threat coming from the man that we killed," Graham said.
Republicans are warning their colleagues against voting for the war powers resolutions, arguing they are "only intended to try to undermine the president in the middle of a conflict with the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism," as House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said Thursday.
"How can you sit here and try to apologize for the things that he did by saying taking him out was wrong?" Scalise continued. "This world is a safer place with Soleimani gone."
House Democrats have been taking pains to condemn Soleimani as they complain that the administration's moves were illegal for having cut out Congress.
"Qasem Soleimani was a malign force responsible for the death of many Americans," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said, adding that he nonetheless has "no confidence that there is some broad strategy at work, or the policies of the president are doing anything but increasing the dangers to the American people."
He called the House's vote the first step "of a broader reassertion of Congress's war powers. . . . It is past time for Congress to do our job and not simply write the executive a blank check."
This article was written by Karoun Demirjian, a reporter for The Washington Post.