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THE HILL: Senators blocked an effort on Friday to restrict President Trump’s ability to go to war with Iran, handing a victory to Republicans and the White House.
Forty Republican senators have voted against the proposal from Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Tom Udall (N.M.), which would block the president from using funding to carry out military action without congressional authorization. An additional nine GOP senators, viewed as no votes, are not expected to vote.
Though the vote remains open, the opposition and absences blocks supporters from being able to muster the 60 yes votes they needed to get the amendment added to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In a round of unusual procedural maneuvering, senators passed the mammoth defense bill on Thursday, but agreed to add the Kaine-Udall proposal retroactively if they could secure the votes.
Republicans, however, had appeared confident that they would be able to block it from getting added to the bill. If every Democrat supported the amendment they would still need to pick up 13 GOP senators, a heavy lift with the opposition from leadership. GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Lee (Utah), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) broke ranks and supported the amendment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued that Democrats were playing politics because of their opposition to Trump’s administration, and predicted it would be defeated.
“None of our Democratic friends would be supporting this if there was a Democratic president,” McConnell said. “This is clearly within the bounds of measured response that have not been micromanaged by Congress in the past.”
He added that he “would love to have some Democratic support, but I think this is an example of the affliction with Trump derangement syndrome.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) had told The Hill that “I don’t think it will get 60 votes.” Asked if he was confident of defeating the measure, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said that he was.
“We want to defeat it, it’s at 60, and so we know what the numbers we need are,” he added. “We know where most of our members are.”
The vote comes amid growing tensions between the United States and Iran. Trump warned earlier this week that if Iran attacked “anything American” that he would respond with “great and overwhelming force,” including “in some areas … obliteration.”
Trump’s tweet comes days after he acknowledged that he called off strikes late last week because he believed they were “not proportionate” to Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone.
The volatile situation sparked new red flags from Democrats who worry that Trump will get into a war with Iran, without a clear strategy or endgame.
“The American people are very afraid that this president, even if he doesn’t want to start a war, would bumble us into one,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
Kaine predicted they would pick up “a number” of Republicans, but declined to provide a specific headcount. Instead, he argued that the vote was crucial, even if it fails, because it would force the Senate to debate military action against Iran.
“[But] it’s just so important that everybody be on the record on this, and we could not let the NDAA go by, when we were 10 minutes away from a war, without having the discussion or the troops and the public would have said ‘what the hell were you guys doing?’ ” Kaine said.
Despite the Senate’s defeat of the measure, it’s likely to crop back up when the House and Senate have to reconcile their competing defense bills. House Democrats are offering an amendment to their NDAA that would prohibit funding for U.S. military action against Iran unless Congress has declared war or enacted another specific authorization. It’s expected to be adopted into their bill.
The demand for a vote in the Senate and the scheduling of the two 2020 Democratic primary debates required an unusual juggling of competing schedules, with some senators already planning to leave town on trips early Friday morning.
To try to accommodate every senator who wanted to vote, McConnell opened the chamber at 5 a.m. on Friday, roughly five hours before the Senate normally comes into session. The vote is still open but broke a record on Friday morning as the longest vote in modern Senate history.
Democrats clamored for a Friday vote in order to let the seven senators running for president to get back to Washington. Without a deal to hold a vote on the Iran amendment the caucus had threatened to bring down the defense bill, which has passed by bipartisan margins for nearly 60 years.
McConnell initially brushed off talk of waiting until the Democratic presidential candidates returned to hold the vote. By Wednesday, however, he announced that he and Schumer had worked out a deal to hold a Friday vote.
“[It] was not wildly and enthusiastically greeted on my side,” McConnell told reporters on Thursday about the decision. “But we’ll be voting for a period of time.”
Kaine credited Democrats with remaining united in demanding a vote, but predicted that McConnell also got the OK from his caucus to put the proposal on the floor.
“I also think Mitch probably asked his own people and he probably found out that a lot of his folks were not afraid of this vote,” Kaine said. “Some are going to vote against Kaine-Udall strongly, some are probably going to vote for it. But people know where they are on this.”