House Vote Reignites Tug-Of-War Over Military Authority The House is set to vote this evening on a resolution to limit President Trump's authority to strike Iran.

President Trump is operating, like his recent predecessors, off of expansive war-making powers granted by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Many lawmakers say it is time for Congress to claw back some of that authority, granted in part by the Constitution, but the politics of voting on warfare can be complicated.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, and senior political editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

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House Vote Reignites Tug-Of-War Over Military Authority

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House Vote Reignites Tug-Of-War Over Military Authority

House Vote Reignites Tug-Of-War Over Military Authority

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hey there. Real quick, before we start the show, we have some news. We have a live show coming up in Des Moines, Iowa, later this month on January 31. It's right before the Democratic caucuses. And if you happen to be traveling there, if you're one of those political tourists, come to our show while you're in town - or if you live in Iowa; we love you, too. To get your tickets, head over to OK, onto the show.

NED: Hi, NPR. This is Ned (ph). And who cares what time it is? It's here. It's now. It's podcast time.


DAVIS: It's 2:36...

RON ELVING, BYLINE: That is too woke for me.


DAVIS: It is 2:37 p.m. on Thursday, January 9.

NED: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But just read the paper in the morning. Don't worry about it.


SNELL: Don't worry.


DAVIS: I like Ned's attitude about 2020.

ELVING: Oh, my. We all need some of that.

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.

ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor correspondent.

DAVIS: And today, on Capitol Hill, the House will vote on a resolution that essentially says the president cannot strike Iran unless they get approval from Congress first. Sounds like a tough move against President Trump, Kelsey. But is it really?

SNELL: Stop me if you've heard this before, but this is a nonbinding situation where the House Democrats are pushing back on the president with a loud - a lot of expectation that the president is going to listen or sign the bill that they're trying to pass.

DAVIS: So nonbinding essentially means it's symbolic; it doesn't have any force.

SNELL: Right. This is the latest in a long record of Congress talking tough about the president and saying that they want to push back on all of the different ways that he's encroached on their powers. But it is, really, you know, like all those times before, not really expected to be something where they actually have the power to stop the president from doing what he wants to do.

ELVING: You know, there are always some members of Congress who really want to seize the reins or at least have some sort of co-equal powers or some kind of role in making these decisions. But the vast majority of people in Congress for many years now have been afraid of these issues, and they aren't really sure they want to vote on them straight up or down. And they know that the president has to have a certain amount of leeway just in terms of speed of response in the nuclear age, in the cyberwarfare age, and so they talk one way and then they back off.

SNELL: We should probably clarify it - and, Sue, you can probably talk more about this - that when we say these issues, we're talking about national security and defense and declaration of war-related issues, more so than we're talking about the times when Congress gets mad about the president getting in the way of their, you know, power of the purse and spending money and things like that.

DAVIS: Sure. It's really war-making power - when the president decides to drop a bomb and where and how. And traditionally, you know, or at least by the letter of the Constitution, Congress is supposed to play a pretty big role here. But they don't.

ELVING: You know, the Constitution - lets go all the way back - was very clear that Congress alone had the power to declare war. But in those days, they had an idea of what war was and what you declared and how much time was involved. And even then, the Constitution then split the power between the executive, who was the commander in chief right from the start, in charge of the armed forces, and the Congress, which had the responsibility to provide those armed forces, to raise troops, to have the authority to tax people, to borrow money so as to have an army for the president to be commander in chief of.

So it was supposed to be a shared power right from the beginning.

DAVIS: And President Trump is sort of enjoying what most presidents before him in the modern era have seen as a Congress sort of thumping its chest about his foreign policy strategy and how he's using that power. And foreign policy is one of those areas where there has been some bipartisan pushback towards the president here. He sent up a bunch of senior White House officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, up to Capitol Hill yesterday to brief lawmakers on the president's decision to order the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

And Senator Mike Lee - he's a very conservative Republican from Utah - he came out of that classified briefing yesterday, and he spoke to reporters, and man, he was hot.


MIKE LEE: It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch of government - I don't care whether they're with the CIA, with the Department of Defense or otherwise - to come in and tell us that we can't debate and discuss the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran. It's un-American. It's unconstitutional. And it's wrong.

DAVIS: And that's one of the president's allies talking.

ELVING: One of the president's allies on most everything but also, like Rand Paul, someone who has long been upset about the high-handedness, in their minds, over the way the president conducts foreign policy and gets us involved around the world. These are guys who, while they're conservatives, are more libertarian and more isolationist, in some people's view, than the average Republican.

SNELL: Well, and the expectation for a lot of them was that President Trump was in their camp because that is how he spoke on the campaign trail. He very much sounded like he was going to be the type of Republican who did not want to get into war. He was very noninterventionist.

DAVIS: And not all lawmakers think that Congress should have more of this power. I think there's also a pretty profound level of comfort among a lot of lawmakers that this kind of decision-making authority, especially in, like, the modern warfare world that we live in, should rest with the executive. And Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, also came out yesterday and really pushed back on this idea that Trump needs to ask Congress for permission for any of this action.


MARCO RUBIO: And every president is authorized by the Constitution of the United States - not just authorized, but required - to protect the United States and particularly our men and women when we deploy them abroad.

DAVIS: So the House is going to vote today, but the Senate's going to vote, I think, as early as next week on sort of a similar measure that would tie the president's hands in Iran.

SNELL: Right. That's a measure from Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. You may remember him as Hillary Clinton's running mate. He has this bill that would have the force of law. He told NPR that he thinks he can get four to seven Republicans on it. And, you know, it doesn't matter if the House doesn't pass it; it's - this is a big message to send, if that many Republicans would vote to rebuke this president.

ELVING: But let's remember - it's a message.

SNELL: Right.

ELVING: Because the president can veto it. And there is no question that there is no veto-proof margin for that in the Senate or the House. And so it will be a powerful message and a powerful moment in the relationship between the Senate and the president. But it is not going to constrain him any more than what the Senate tried to do with respect to our Saudi Arabian arms sales and some other things that they disagreed with him on.

DAVIS: All right, we need to take a quick break, and when we get back, we'll talk about Harry and Meghan's decision to leave the royal family. Just kidding - we'll talk about what Congress has planned next in this war powers debate.


SNELL: I mean, we could do either. Their wax figures have been removed.

DAVIS: Have they really?


ELVING: Are you serious? No.


DAVIS: (Laughter) We'll be right back.

And we're back. And Kelsey, Speaker Pelosi said today the House will have more to say on this front as soon as next week.

SNELL: Yeah. Democrats got together yesterday for their weekly meeting where they kind of get together in the basement of the Capitol to set the agenda for the days ahead. And they talked about going forward on two more resolutions. One is from Barbara Lee of California, and it would be to repeal the 2002 authorization of use of military force. Sometimes that's shorthanded as AUMF. And that's the thing that said it was OK to go to war in Iraq. There was also an earlier authorization passed in the days immediately after 9/11, and Lee was the only Democrat to vote against it. There's a second thing from Ro Khanna, also of California, to block money from being used for going to war with Iran.

DAVIS: Yeah. The 2001 AUMF has been a topic of heated debate now for the better part of 20 years because it has essentially given the president - all presidents - a blank check to conduct the war on terror as they see fit.

ELVING: That's right. And it was passed just days after the 9/11 attacks, September of 2001. I mean, the towers' ruins were in smoking condition at that point. And everyone thought we had to do everything and anything to get back at these terrorists, and the focus all the time has been on fighting terrorists. So when Barack Obama was using this, when George W. Bush was using this, we were always talking about fighting al-Qaida or fighting ISIL or fighting ISIS or fighting one of the groups that could be identified as a non-state actor.

What has got people riled up right now is that with the hit on Soleimani, we are now into the business of hitting people who are also major officials of an actual state - that is, Iran. And that's quite different from what the AUMF has been used for up to now.

DAVIS: Yeah. And we should clarify a couple of things. There were two AUMFs. There was the 2001 AUMF that was this very broad war-on-terror authorization. And then in 2002, there was another one to authorize the war in Iraq. And that 2002 one is what the administration is citing as the legal justification for their decision to take out Soleimani because it happened on Iraqi territory. Also, the Congressional Research Service, which is the sort of nonpartisan research arm of the Congress, put out a report last year and noted that that 2001 AUMF has been used to legally justify at least 41 different military operations in at least 19 different countries, which just speaks to how expansive that authority is.

ELVING: Emphasis on at least because there have been literally thousands of uses of drones against terrorist targets and so forth. So we are in a territory here that, in a sense, is extra-international law territory in using these authorizations. And Congress, on the one hand, wants to have the bow to its own authority that these things imply. But on the other hand, once they pass them, sometimes they come back to bite you.

For example, the 2002 in Iraq was used against Hillary Clinton by Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries and, in some people's minds, was the leverage that got him out there ahead of her and got that nomination for him in 2008. As an issue, it was almost the only issue they disagreed on. And now we're seeing it used against Joe Biden by Bernie Sanders because Biden was in the Senate back in 2002, and he voted for it as well.

DAVIS: Yeah. I thought Speaker Pelosi today was also really interesting 'cause she was kind of rarely candid about this topic in saying, essentially, look; I would like to rewrite these AUMFs, too, but it's really hard, and it's a lot harder than people think it is.

ELVING: When you say rarely candid, you mean today she was candid, and that's rare.

DAVIS: She was candid about the AUMF.

SNELL: I think that it's - it is rare that you hear people speaking really openly about the difficulty of an AUMF because it's a lot easier to be shorthandedly (ph) for or against it, particularly the 2001 version of this authority, because it was so broad and because it's really hard to say, how does the government define intervention when we're talking about drone strikes, which are a really very different removal from the traditional definition of going to war? And it's very different than a battle when you're talking about putting boots on the ground and bringing troops out to battle troops. It is a drone delivering a strike. And that's something that's been traditionally very difficult for Congress to address.

DAVIS: Yeah, and there's this broad argument or this broad debate about government. And there's good arguments on either side. Is - should this power be more with the Congress, with the legislative branch, or is it better rested with the president and the executive branch? And clearly, the government can't resolve that debate right now.

SNELL: Well, some of that goes back to this question of these briefings. And one of the complaints that we hear a lot is that the way that the Trump administration has been conducting these is they bring in these top officials in national security and defense to talk to every single member of Congress it wants - all of the House members in one room, all of the senators in one room. And they - members of Congress just do not have the level of detailed information that they think they should have in order to make a decision of this magnitude.

DAVIS: The thing I am looking for and I think the thing to watch in this debate is, as of right now, it looks like the situation with Iran is de-escalating, and that's the stated intention of the Trump administration. But if there are future attacks, if there is a reason that the government has to escalate with Iran, President Trump's going to be faced with a decision. And that is, does he believe he has the authority he needs to attack Iran if something were to happen to provoke him, or would he come to Congress and say, I would really like your support here; could you please vote for it? And that would be a really tough decision either way you look at it.

SNELL: I find it also, you know, very unlikely or just maybe really difficult to believe that the president would do that in an election year. Putting people - part of the reason that members of Congress don't like doing this is they don't like being put on the record. And to put some vulnerable Senate Republicans on the record about going to war would be really risky.

DAVIS: Yeah, and that's the sort of tricky politics about this - is Congress and a lot of lawmakers say they want this power, but they don't necessarily want to have that vote on their record, as Ron pointed out.

All right. That's a wrap for today. We'll be back in your feeds tomorrow. And Ron and I and Ayesha and Asma are headed to Chicago on Friday night for a live show, and that episode will be in your feeds on Saturday.

ELVING: Going to Chicago. Baby, don't you want to go?

DAVIS: I want to go with Ron.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I also cover Congress.

ELVING: And I am Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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