The incoming chairman of the powerful House committee that oversees the U.S. military said Wednesday that Congress’ plan to stop President Donald Trump’s military action in Yemen is unlikely to actually influence White House policy.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, who will soon become the chair of the Armed Services Committee, said the War Powers Resolution in the House and Senate “doesn’t change the equation” practically or legally. The resolution aims to severely limit U.S. military intervention in Yemen without congressional approval.
The fighting in Yemen includes troops from Saudi Arabia, aided by U.S. forces. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder that evidence showed was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has prompted calls from Congress to cut off the Yemen support.
But Smith, speaking at a defense writers breakfast in Washington, D.C., said presidents are able to circumvent the War Powers rule quite easily.
“At the end of the day, the president, going back to Thomas Jefferson, has always been able to do with the military what they want to do with the military, until Congress completely cuts off the money,” Smith said.
He said the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya also got around the War Powers Resolution, which requires the president to receive approval from Congress for armed conflict or “cease hostilities” after 60 days. It also includes a 30-day troop withdrawal period, and exempts soldiers fighting al Qaeda.
When Congress didn’t give approval for continued Libyan involvement, Smith said, the Obama administration told Congress that hostilities had ceased, prompting what Smith called “one of the best questions I’ve ever heard” from a different congressman.
“’If several missiles were lobbed into New York City tomorrow, would you consider this a hostile act?’” Smith recalled. “’We are still bombing in Libya, and yet we say hostilities have ceased. Please explain that.’ (Obama) didn’t. But really, if he was being honest, the explanation would have been: ‘Look, the War Powers Resolution is a pain in the ass, we have to comply with it, so we’re saying hostilities have ceased.’”
Republican and Democratic senators voted to proceed with debate on the resolution Wednesday, but House Republicans, who currently control that chamber, blocked a similar measure from making it to a vote, meaning the issue could be renewed when Democrats take control of the House next year.
Even if the resolution fails to have an impact on White House decision-making, proponents of the plan said it would send a powerful message to Trump and to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s about Congress starting to grab back the power to declare war — this administration has shown through missile strikes in Syria and some of the things they’re doing in Yemen that they don’t think they have to justify anything to Congress — and it’s also about a message to the Saudis: You don’t have a blank check,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia.
Even if the House agreed, the chance of the resolution becoming law “is probably pretty small right now,” as it might still have to overcome a veto by Trump, acknowledged Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of the 11 Republicans who voted in favor.
“In some ways, it’s symbolic, but this may well be the first time in our history that one body of Congress has actually told the president, ‘We aren’t at war. We don’t intend to be at war,’” Paul said. “So it is a big deal that this is happening.”