Congress Divided on Authorizing War with Iran

In separate votes, the House and Senate split over whether to limit President Trump’s authority to launch military action against Iran. On July 12, the House passed a bipartisan amendment that would prohibit funding U.S. military operations without congressional approval. The vote was 251-170’ 27 Republicans supported the legislation. On June 26, the Senate voted against a similar amendment that would have blocked funds for war with Iran unless it received congressional authorization. The vote was 50-40. It needed 60 votes to pass; 10 senators did not vote. The amendment received support from 46 Democrats but only four Republicans.

Both votes centered around a key issue: Does the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to allow military action against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, apply to a conflict with in Iran almost two decades later? On June 24, Trump claimed that he did not need congressional approval to initiate a strike on Iran.

The issue came to a head after Iran shot down a U.S. drone on June 20 and was linked to sabotage of six foreign tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The Trump administration claimed that Iran had ties to al Qaeda. The White House wanted to link the 9/11 attacks to Tehran’s subsequent ties to the jihadi movement, thus providing justification for striking Iran under the AUMF. The congressional briefings sparked a debate on the President’s legal authority to invoke the 2001 authorization. The House amendment specified that the 2001 authorization was not sufficient for the United States to act against Iran.


House Vote

On July 12, House lawmakers passed an amendment to the NDAA introduced by Representatives Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL). The amendment required Trump to seek congressional authorization before initiating a strike on Iran. It also stipulated that any new authorization must include “objectives, targets, and geographic scope, and reporting requirements.” The legislation received support from more than two dozen Republicans reflecting a bi-partisan desire to reclaim war authorization powers.

“When this passes, it will be a clear statement from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that this country is tired of endless wars, that we do not want another war in the Middle East,” said Rep. Khanna before the vote.

Representative Gaetz confronted his fellow Republicans who opposed the amendment. “If my war-hungry colleagues — some of whom have already suggested that we invade Venezuela, North Korea and probably a few other countries before lunch time tomorrow — if they’re so certain in their case against Iran, let them bring their authorization to use military force against Iran to this very floor,” he said.

Some opponents of the legislation claimed the bill was unnecessary. The administration’s measured response to Iran shoot-down of our U.S. military asset in international airspace shows the president is not looking for a war with Iran,” said Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX). Others argued that the amendment would hamper the ability of the President to respond to Iranian provocations. “Our national security is not a game. But that is exactly how Democrats are treating it,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).


Amendment Full Text


At the end of subtitle C of title XII, add the following:


(a) FINDINGS.—Congress finds the following:

(1) The acquisition by the Government of Iran of a nuclear weapon would pose a grave threat to international peace and stability and the national security of the United States and United States allies, including Israel.

(2) The Government of Iran is a leading state sponsor of terrorism, continues to materially support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and is responsible for ongoing gross violations of the human rights of the people of Iran.

(3) Article I of the United States Constitution requires the President to obtain authorization from Congress before engaging in war with Iran.

(b) CLARIFICATION OF CURRENT LAW.—Nothing in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107–40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note), the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 (Public Law 107–243; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note), or any other provision of law enacted before the date of the enactment of this Act may be construed to provide authorization for the use of military force against Iran.


(1) IN GENERAL.—Except as provided in paragraph (1), no Federal funds may be used for any use of military force in or against Iran unless Congress has—

(A) declared war; or

(B) enacted specific statutory authorization for such use of military force after the date of the enactment of this Act that meets the requirements of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1541 et seq.).

(2) EXCEPTION.—The prohibition under paragraph (1) shall not apply to a use of military force that is consistent with section (2)(c) of the War Powers Resolution.

(d) RULES OF CONSTRUCTION.—(1) Nothing in this section may be construed to prevent the President from using necessary and appropriate force to defend United States allies and partners if Congress enacts specific statutory authorization for such use of force consistent with the requirements of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1541 et seq.).

(2) Nothing in this Act may be construed to relieve the executive branch of restrictions on the use of force, reporting, or consultation requirements set forth in the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1541 et seq.).

(3) Nothing in this Act may be construed to authorize the use of military force.


Senate Vote

On June 28, Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans failed to pass a measure that would have required Congressional approval for military action against Iran, except in the case of self-defense. Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) co-sponsored the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Democrats, along with Republicans Jerry Moran (R-KS), Susan Collins (R-ME), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Rand Paul (R-KY) aimed to restrain President Donald Trump, who approved and then called off a strike on Iran on June 21.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed to the amendment vote after Senate Democrats threatened to block the passing of the NDAA. "Obviously, I believe the Udall amendment can and should be defeated. We should put this issue to rest, before we break for the Fourth of July recess,” said McConnell. If the amendment had passed, it would have been added to the NDAA retroactively. Senate leaders allowed the vote to start at 5:00 a.m. and end at 3:00 p.m. to give Democrats running for president time to return from a debate in Miami.  

The amendment’s supporters argued that Congress has the constitutional right to examine any foreign conflict before military action is taken. They emphasized that President Trump could still approve military action without Congressional approval if American troops were attacked. “We need to stand up and take the hard votes. Our troops face live fire and sacrifice their lives – and we should have no sympathy for Congress ducking a vote on whether or not we go to war. Congress has not authorized war with Iran, and we need to make sure that saber rattling and miscalculation don’t spark a catastrophic conflict, before it’s too late,” said Udall.  



The bill’s opponents argued that it would be harmful to national security. They cautioned that the amendment would limit the President’s ability to quickly respond to emerging threats and defend U.S. interests abroad. “This amendment is unconstitutional, harmful to American security, and sends a dangerous message about American resolve. Congress should never limit the President’s ability to defend our nation. This effort is especially dangerous as Iran continues to escalate its hostile behavior against the U.S. and its interests,” said Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY).  


Letter to Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe from Under Secretary of Defense 

Dear Mr. Chairman: 

I am writing in regard to a proposed amendment, as revised on June 25, 2019, “Prohibition of Unauthorized Military Operations Against Iran,” to S.1790 (Amendment no. 0883), to the National Defense Authorization Bill for FY 2020. 

The Department strongly opposes this amendment, which purports to limit the President’s authority in discharging his responsibility as commander in chief and chief executive to defend the nation and its interests. 

If U.S. citizens, diplomatic facilities in the region, or other important national interests are threatened or attacks, we must be able to respond promptly and in an appropriate fashion.  

At a time when Iran is engaging in escalating military provocations, demonstrated most recently by its shooting down of a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle and its attacking allied shipping, this amendment could embolden Iran to further provocations.  

As the situation with Iran continues to evolve, we are committed to engagement with Congress, especially regarding matters of national security.  


John C. Rood 


Amendment Full Text  

Purpose: To prohibit unauthorized military operations in or

against Iran.


  1. 1790

To authorize appropriations for fiscal year 2020 for military activities of the Department of Defense, for military construction, and for defense activities of the Department of Energy, to prescribe military personnel strengths for such fiscal year, and for other purposes.

Referred to the Committee on ________ and ordered to be printed

Ordered to lie on the table and to be printed

AMENDMENT intended to be proposed by Mr. UDALL (for himself, Mr. PAUL, Mr. KAINE, Mr. DURBIN, Mr. MERKLEY, and Mr. MURPHY)


At the appropriate place, insert the following:


(a) IN GENERAL.—No funds may be used to conduct hostilities against the Government of Iran, against the Armed Forces of Iran, or in the territory of Iran, except pursuant to an Act or a joint resolution of Congress specifically authorizing such hostilities that is enacted after the date of the enactment of this Act.

(b) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section may be construed to limit, modify, or relieve the executive branch of any restriction, duty, or requirement regarding the use of force or reporting requirements set forth in the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1541 et seq.).


What’s Next

The split vote in the House and Senate means the two chambers will have to reconcile different versions of the NDAA. Both chambers will appoint members to a conference committee to debate the bill and ultimately agree on a compromise. The resulting bill will go back to both the House and Senate for another vote. Senate Republicans are likely to motion to remove the House's Iran provision during this process.