On June 28, Senate Republicans were able to stop an amendment that would have required President Trump to seek congressional approval for an attack on Iran, despite the fact that the majority of votes were cast in support of the measure. That move wasn’t the day’s only victory for congressional hawks, as they were able to further pave the way for a potential military escalation before Congress recessed for the national holiday.
S.Amdt.883 was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense funding bill. If passed, the legislation would have hypothetically prevented the Trump administration from spending the appropriated funds on an Iran attack unless it obtained congressional approval.
The Udall/Kaine amendment received 50 votes. Every Democrat backed it and four Republicans crossed the aisle to support it: Rand Paul of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas. 40 GOP Senators voted against the legislation, but the ten-vote advantage didn’t matter as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) established that the amendment needed 60 votes in order to pass. Many headlines framed this development as the Senate “rejecting” the idea of congressional approval, despite the fact that the measure would have passed were it not for McConnell.
“Today, the Senate sent a strong message that President Trump cannot bypass Congress to start an illegal war with Iran,” said co-sponsor Tim Kaine (D-VA) after the vote. “We didn’t reach the 60-vote threshold we needed to pass it as an amendment to the defense bill, but the vote today demonstrates bipartisan concern that President Trump might pull our troops into an unnecessary war.”
A day before Republicans blocked the Udall amendment, Utah Senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney introduced a one-sentence amendment that doubled down on Trump’s war powers. SA 861 states that, “Amounts authorized to be appropriated by this Act may be used to ensure the ability of the Armed Forces of the United States to defend themselves, and United States citizens, against attack by the government, military forces, or proxies of a foreign nation or by other hostile forces.”
“We do not need the Udall amendment to tell us what The Constitution already says: Congress alone can declare war,” said Romney on the Senate floor. “His amendment is clearly intended to limit the President in some other ways, which he has not yet explained to this body. As it is written, the Udall amendment would dramatically limit the existing authority that The Constitution provides the President to respond to Iran… tying the President’s hands in some undefined way in the midst of the current crisis is misguided, dangerous, and surely sends the wrong message to Iran and our allies.”
At first glance, Romney’s amendment is seemingly unnecessary. It doesn’t authorize a strike against Iran, and the point it makes about the military defending itself is hardly controversial in Washington. The amendment sailed to an overwhelming and unsurprising victory with only four Senators voting against it. The only Democratic presidential hopeful to vote NO was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) did not vote.
However, the Romney vote was a symbolic victory for the GOP. As John M. Donnelly notes at Roll Call, “The Senate is on record rejecting a Democratic attempt to rebuff the president. And the Senate also overwhelmingly backed a reaffirmation of Trump’s authority as commander in chief in the form of Romney’s amendment. And all of this activity occurred in the context of passing a defense authorization bill that endorses spending the full $750 billion that Trump had proposed for national defense.”
The passage of the NDAA didn’t only deliver military funding and symbolic victories for the GOP, they were also able to quietly push a radical resolution into the final version of the bill. SEC. 6206 is entitled, “Expansion of availability of financial assets of Iran to Victims of Terrorism.” The section addresses the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombings, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen. The U.S. government has long believed that Iran backed the attack and in 2012 a federal judge ordered the country to pay out $813 million to the families of the victims.
The section was part of Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe’s substitute amendment to the NDAA and was inserted via a voice vote without debate or discussion. It gives U.S. courts unprecedented reach by allowing the government to legislate sovereignty over foreign banks that contain Iranian funds.
“[The] issue here isn’t whether victims of Marine barracks bombing & their families deserve justice/compensation,” tweeted Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman, “Issue is whether, in drive to achieve this & to find another way to stick it to Iran, Congress is going to commit another massive own goal for US interests overall.”
This provision has been introduced as an amendment by Republicans in the House and a House version of the Udall amendment will also be considered soon.