As President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exchanged escalating rhetorical jabs Tuesday, the Senate fell into a bitter divide of its own over a provision in a massive new defense authorization bill that would block any Pentagon money for Mr. Trump to start a war with Tehran unless Congress gave the green light.
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer led the Senate Democrats’ argument that President Trump’s “positions have been inconsistent, opaque, and sometimes even contradictory,” and said that tensions between Iran and the U.S. could rapidly escalate to a point of armed conflict without the consent of Congress.
“Americans, including myself, and our caucus is worried that President Trump will bumble into a war that nobody wants,” the New York Democrat said at a press conference Tuesday.
Mr. Trump and his aides have repeatedly insisted they already have the authority for military action against Iran to protect American and allied interests in the Middle East.
Republican Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe told reporters that restricting Mr. Trump’s authority to use military force in this situation is “the worst thing you can do the president, and it’s obviously motivated in order to be bad for the president.”
“It puts the president in a position where, when he’s trying to negotiate overseas, are they really going to believe him? Because if you have a Congress [that] can come along and slap the president in the face and say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing [this],’ it’s taking away his very skillful rights and responsibilities to negotiate,” the Oklahoma Republican argued.
The restrictive amendment, sponsored by Sens. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, and Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, requires Congress’s approval to go to war with Iran, and would not allow any funds from the defense budget to be used for military operations against Iran.
“Three simple words: no unauthorized wars,” Mr. Schumer said. “We learned that hard lesson in Iraq years ago.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he would allow a vote on the amendment. The Kentucky Republican said that would be opposing the “Udall amendment,” and hopes it is defeated.
“Nobody’s advocating going to war with Iran — not the president, not the secretary of state, not the generals,” Mr. McConnell said. “I don’t think it’s good for this country to see the Iranians observing us arguing over all this, either.”
In a closed-door meeting, Senate Democrats weighed blocking the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in order to force a vote on the Iran amendment.
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said he would vote to stall the NDAA until the amendment is voted on, but it was unclear how many of his Democratic colleagues would follow suit.
“People want to move forward,” he told reporters. “They want the authorization bill to pass and they want a vote on the amendment.”
Mr. Inhofe acknowledged that Mr. Trump does not believe he needs Congress’ approval to use military force against Iran, despite stark warnings from Democrats who have insisted that any military action against Iran needs to be approved by Congress.
“Frankly, I don’t believe that he needs it either,” the Oklahoma Republican said, “but the majority do.”
The NDAA, which sets the topline budget figure for the Pentagon and is studded with hundreds of provisions on military policy, strategy and acquisition practices, has run into another procedural snag, as Senate Democrats initially sought to delay a vote because so many members of their caucus will be participating in presidential primary debates in Florida on Wednesday and Thursday night.
Seven Democratic senators will be participating in the first round of debates on Wednesday and Thursday, including two who sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Kristen E. Gillibrand.
Mr. Inhofe blasted the notion that the defense bill should be postponed for what he called “purely political reasons.”
“They got a daytime job and they need to be doing their daytime job which is defending America and passing the NDAA,” he said.