Democrats say they have the Senate votes to rein in Trump on Iran

Nonbinding statement affirming Congress role in declaring war passed the House last week; Republican leader McConnell urges Democrats not to ‘screw up’ US deterrence in Mideast

US Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on "Nuclear Policy and Posture" on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
US Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on "Nuclear Policy and Posture" on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Senate Democrats declared on Tuesday that they had obtained the 51 votes necessary to pass a resolution in the Republican-controlled body to rein in US President Donald Trump’s war powers against Iran.

The nonbinding resolution, a version of which passed in the Democratic-controlled House last week, asserts that Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran.

It comes amid widespread criticism, much of it along partisan lines, of Trump ordering the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this month, a move that sparked a tense period of saber-rattling in the region and drew retaliatory Iranian missile strike on US forces in Iraq that damaged facilities but did not hurt American troops.

US Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and one of four co-sponsors of the resolution, said Tuesday he’d “got 51 declared votes on version two” of the statement, and “more [are] considering getting on board,” according to The Hill.

In this photo from October 24, 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not seen, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, right, talks with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, not seen, before a memorial service for Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, at the Capitol in Washington. (Erin Schaff/Pool via AP)

The resolution is already co-sponsored by two Republicans, senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee of Kentucky and Utah respectively, while announcements of support from senators Todd Young of Indiana and Susan Collins of Maine raise the figure to four — exactly the number Democrats needed to add to their ranks to get a 51-vote majority in the 100-member Senate.

Democrats are expected to try to force a vote on the resolution next week. For procedural reasons, January 21 is the earliest date it can take place.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who opposes the resolution, acknowledged the Senate would “soon” take up the measure for debate, but warned Democrats it would send the wrong message to US allies.

The “blunt instrument” of a war powers resolution is no substitute for “the studied oversight the Senate can exercise through hearings … and more tailored legislation,” McConnell said.

Iranians walk past a poster of slain military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic Republic’s capital Tehran on January 11, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

“We appear to have restored a measure of deterrence in the Middle East,” McConnell said in a speech opening the Senate for the week. “So let’s not screw it up.”

His remarks came amid questions and fresh explanations from the Trump administration about why it ordered the January 3 strike that killed Soleimani.

Last week’s House resolution is not binding on the president and does not require his signature. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nonetheless insisted it “has real teeth” because “it is a statement of the Congress of the United States.”

McConnell did not offer a timeline for Senate debate, saying only that it would take up the war powers resolution “soon.” He mocked Democrats for questioning what “imminent” attacks the administration was preventing by killing Soleimani.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, heads to a briefing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other national security officials on the details of the threat that prompted the US to kill Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, on January 8, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Trump did not consult with congressional leaders ahead of the attack that killed the Iranian general. Afterward, he sent Congress a notification explaining the rationale, but kept it classified. He said Friday that Iranian operatives had planned major attacks on four US embassies. Just hours earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the US didn’t know when or where attacks might occur.

McConnell stepped past the administration’s muddled explanations and noted that Democrats are now quibbling with what he called “career professionals” who advised Trump on the issue.

“I look forward to hearing our colleagues who want to quibble over the word ‘imminent’ explain just how close we should let the terrorists come to killing more Americans before we defend ourselves,” McConnell said.

But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer defended the Democratic move on Tuesday, calling Trump’s foreign policy decision-making “impulsive, erratic, egotistical and often reckless,” according to CBS.

US President Donald Trump speaks from the White House on January 8, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

Kaine said late Monday that the bipartisan resolution “clearly states that America can always defend itself,” but added: ”We don’t think that this president — or any president — should send our troops into war without a vote of Congress.”

Schumer said on Monday that the administration’s lack of transparency on Iran is “completely unacceptable.”

While Trump “has promised to keep us out of endless wars in the Middle East, his actions have moved us closer to exactly such a war — making the American people and American forces less safe,” Schumer said Monday.

Kaine and Republicans Lee and Paul are joined by a fourth co-sponsor, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaks during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, July 25, 2018. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Lee has said that a briefing last week by Pompeo and other officials on the Iran strike was “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen, at least on a military issue,” in the nine years he’s served in the Senate.

Paul also criticized the briefing as inadequate and said Congress should not abdicate its “duty under the Constitution to debate when we go to war.”

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