News & Publications

June 13, 2019

Critical Committee Debate Examines Trump’s Lack of War Authorities on Iran

Washington, DC – In the early morning hours of June 13, the House Armed Services Committee debated an amendment seeking to block an unauthorized war with Iran. It constituted one of the most meaningful Congressional debates on Iran and war powers to date, and will likely lead to a full House vote when the annual defense authorization bill hits the floor later this summer.

Here are some topline takeaways from the debate:

Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) promised to support an amendment on the House floor that will rule out an unauthorized war with Iran:

The amendment – sponsored by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Seth Moulton (D-MA), Anthony Brown (D-MD) and other Democrats – was rigorously debated, with Democrats voicing their support and Republicans largely objecting to the amendment as unprecedented and overly restrictive. While united on the goal of blocking an unauthorized war, some Democrats voiced concern on some of the language in the amendment. Chairman Smith eventually recommended that the amendment be withdrawn, telling Rep. Khanna that he “has my absolute commitment that I want language in this bill that makes clear that there will not be an unconstitutional war on Iran and we will be committed to doing that on the floor.”

While a positive vote in committee would have been the best possible outcome, Smith promising that there will be an amendment on the House floor – likely in July – is a fair alternative. The NDAA is Smith’s bill, and those concerned about an unauthorized war with Iran will be well-positioned for winning a vote on the floor.

Legislators confirmed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo linked Iran to al-Qaeda in his closed-door briefing before Congress, raising the specter of the administration invoking the 2001 authorization for strikes on Iran:

While Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) stated that the Trump administration has never asserted it could attack Iran with the 2001 authorization to use military force (AUMF), Rep. Matt Gaetz – a conservartive Republican – corrected the record. According to Rep. Gaetz, “the notion that the administration has never maintained that there are elements of the 2001 AUMF that would authorize their hostilities toward Iran is not consistent with my understanding of what they said to us.” Similarly, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) – a Democrat and former intelligence officer – stated “We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran. Yes, I’m sorry sir. Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle sounded open to a straightforward statement that the 2001 authorization does not apply to Iran:

The Khanna-Moulton-Brown amendment would have blocked funding for an unauthorized war, and also clarified that there is no existing authorization for a war. While Republicans raised numerous objections to funding ban, some of the legislators appeared open to a formulation that merely clarified that the 2001 authorization cannot be applied to Iran. Whether their sentiments could lead to support for a future amendment, however, remains uncertain.

When questioned by Rep. Slotkin, the committee’s ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) acknowledged “I do not believe – for what it’s worth – the 2001 AUMF authorizes military force against the state of Iran.”

The debate moved us a step closer to blocking Trump and Bolton’s march to war with Iran, but many more steps are needed – and the risk of war remains far too high.

To ensure that there is a vote, legislators need to agree on final language, rally their colleagues, and help protect a potential amendment from would-be saboteurs. However, a vote on the House floor is unlikely to happen until July, and it is unclear whether Senators will be granted time for a floor debate on a similar measure in the meantime. Moreover, as demonstrated by today’s attacks on oil tankers – which some policymakers have been quick to pin on Iran without concrete evidence – there remains a growing risk of war as a result of Trump’s maximum pressure policy. NIAC Action will continue to underscore the importance of legislation to rule out an unauthorized war with Iran, and will keep you posted as this important campaign unfolds.

Back to top