It’s a question as old as the republic: How much authority does the president have in committing the U.S. to war?
In the previous two centuries, the power to make war lay almost exclusively with Congress. And Congress zealously guarded this prerogative, although most presidents found it necessary to deploy the military to protect U.S. assets.
Things changed after World War II. In the atomic age, enormous power and responsibility was assumed by the president. A president couldn’t go to Congress when the decision to go to war had to be made in minutes, not days. From there, there was a gradual erosion of congressional power to declare war.
Congress eventually rebelled, passing a joint resolution in 1973 that became known as the War Powers Act. In a sense, it made things worse for Congress because it specifically spelled out when a president could commit U.S. forces to combat and for how long.
For decades, congressional liberals have threatened to take a president to court to enforce the Act, but have always stopped short, fearing the court would declare the act unconstitutional. So, threatening to invoke the War Powers Act has become more of a political statement than an actual stop sign for the commander in chief.
Trump has been threatening war against Iran, although notably backing off in retaliating for the Iranians bringing down a U.S. drone. But Trump’s threats have been enough to stir Congress into a war powers debate with Republican hawks on the president’s side and much of the Senate on the other.
An excuse to debate war powers has come in a Senate vote on the annual National Defense Authorization bill. The debate promises to be intense, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that he personally opposes an amendment to require Congress to authorize an attack on Iran, but surprisingly, isn’t opposed to bringing the amendment to the floor for a vote.
We’re not opposed to having the vote, and we are working on having that vote, passing the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] and passing a [border spending] supplemental this week,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
Amid a partisan split over the growing tension between Washington and Tehran, the bipartisan amendment to the massive 2020 NDAA would allow force in the event of an attack on the U.S., its territories or possessions, or its armed forces, but otherwise require congressional approval. It’s sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and backed by Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had been agitating for the vote for days and hailed McConnell’s decision.
“Yes, we can sit down and work out an agreement to have this amendment, it will be voted yes or no, and we will pass the NDAA,” Schumer said. “That’s the way our caucus feels. Our caucus is strongly united that we must, must, must have a vote.”
The president will base his authority to go to war against Iran on a fig leaf, indeed — the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force, which three presidents have used to justify military action abroad and Congress refused to reauthorize in 2015. But as with the War Powers Act, neither side wants to play constitutional chicken with the courts.
Even Republicans like Mitt Romney would back Trump’s play in Iran.
“I think the president was wise not to pursue that course,” Romney said of the canceled airstrike.
“But I still believe a military response is called for. The president has far more options that I’m aware of.
“The military would provide many possible responses for what Iran did. In the case of an attack on a drone of ours in international air space, there needs to be a response from our country.“
Trump would veto the entire Defense Reauthorization Act if that amendment passes. But McConnell appears fairly confident it will fail, giving the GOP a strong talking point against Democrats.
Yet McConnell’s assent signals he knows the Iran vote will fail and that the GOP can message effectively against Democrats on the amendment itself, said Rick Berger, and American Enterprise Institute research fellow.
In Senate floor remarks, McConnell said President Donald Trump is right to stand up to Iran and pressure it economically. While Trump does not want a war with Iran, the amendment would “gratuitously take options off the table” in the ongoing crisis, McConnell said.
Trump has an uphill battle convincing voters that military action against Iran would be necessary. But bad public opinion polls haven’t stopped presidents in the past and it’s doubtful it will stop Trump.