On Feb. 13, the U.S. Senate sent an important message about Congress’ constitutional authority and responsibility to declare war.
In a 55-45 vote, the Senate passed a resolution authored by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia that would reaffirm the balance between congressional power to declare war and the president’s responsibility to defend the United States. That resolution would direct the president to terminate the use of military force against Iran unless “explicitly authorized” by Congress to use that force.
Both of Maine’s senators cosponsored the resolution. Sen. Susan Collins was one of only eight Republicans to vote for it, though that number was encouragingly higher than expected.
This resolution, the production of careful bipartisan negotiation, is expected to come up for a vote soon in the House of Representatives, where a similar resolution already passed in January. Despite the likely passage of Kaine’s resolution in the House, it’s all but guaranteed that the Senate will be unable to override an expected veto from President Donald Trump. But that does not mean this effort will have been for nothing.
Passing legislation that Trump has so strongly voiced opposition to would surely send a statement to the White House. But that’s not really the point. At its core, the issue is a constitutional one that predates Trump, and will have an impact on future presidents and congresses for years to come. It is less about sending a message to a single president, and much more about showing the American people that the legislative branch is willing and capable of exercising its constitutional power under Article I, section 8 to declare war.
Collins emphasized that this is not about one president or one party during a Feb. 12 press conference.
“Although the president as commander in chief has the power to lead and defend our armed forces and to respond to imminent attacks, no president has the authority to commit our military to a war,” Collins said. “It is important to reassert the legislative branch’s war powers authorities regardless of who occupies the White House. This has been my position during every administration, Democratic or Republican.”
King had a similar message during a Feb. 13 interview with Fox News.
“This is a power that Congress has largely abdicated over the past 70 years,” King said. “And by the way — this is not just about President Trump — Tim Kaine and I, and John McCain and others brought forward similar resolutions during the Obama administration. So it is not aimed at any particular president, it is aimed at the principle that we shouldn’t be taking our country to war on the decision of one individual. That is what the framers of the Constitution clearly decided and we think we ought to honor that provision.”
Trump and others have argued that this resolution would project division and weakness to Iran. But the constitutionally prescribed separation of powers is part of America’s enduring strength, not a weakness.
“Congress must take back its constitutional war powers authority to prevent an unauthorized conflict with Iran,” Rep. Chellie Pingree said in early January. Both she and Rep. Jared Golden voted for the Iran resolution passed in the House on Jan 9.
In an interview with the BDN editorial board last week, Golden highlighted a recent OpEd he wrote in The Washington Post together with an ideologically diverse group of Democratic, Republican and independent House members calling on Congress to debate the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force that have been used to conduct U.S. military operations in the middle east for nearly 20 years.
“There are people that would say that we are undermining those operations by talking about this,” Golden said about the 2001 authorizations for use of military force. “However, we explicitly state that we are not calling for its repeal, but rather its reauthorization.”
He discussed the development of a 2020 authorizations for use of military force “that meets the threats that we have today, not the threats that we had immediately after 9/11.”
Golden, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine, said last week that “ if we’re going to send troops into conflict zones, then Congress should be, I think, debating this over and over.”
“This should just become standard work,” he added.
No matter what happens with the war powers resolution related to Iran, we hope the debate has emphasized at least one point: that the difficult decision of declaring war rests with Congress, and legislators need to reclaim that power and the responsibilities that come with it.