Biden’s Yemen strike reignites Congress’ battle over war powers

Biden’s Yemen strike reignites Congress’ battle over war powers

President Joe Biden’s decision to strike the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen is reigniting the long-simmering congressional battle over war powers — and it’s become a rare point of consensus for progressives and hardline conservatives.

While the action had support on the Hill — military hawks and many conservatives praised the strikes, with many calling them overdue — a significant swath of both the left and the right quickly condemned the Biden administration for not seeking an explicit green light from Congress. They argued it’s a requirement under the War Powers Act. Those factions have long aligned on curtailing sprawling war powers and military operations across the world over the past two decades.

“Their argument is that the attack on the ships were an attack on the United States,” said Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “If there’s time to build an international coalition, there should have been time to come to Congress.”

She added in a brief interview that “I understand the challenge of a Congress that is so divided, but I still think that we can’t just skip over” the need to get authorization.

Lawmakers could try to block further military action through legislation, though next steps are unclear at the moment, especially since leaders in both parties largely backed Biden’s decision to strike the Houthis after months of attacks on ships in the Red Sea. Still, Democratic dissent over the Yemen strikes represents more bad news for Biden entering an election year, given existing intraparty clashes over Biden’s support for Israel.

The coalition of countries that conducted the strikes invoked “the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, consistent with the UN Charter.” And experts say he was within his rights to take action without an official declaration from Congress since the Houthis pose an immediate threat.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said the strikes further inflamed progressive fears about a widening conflict in the Middle East, beyond the existing one between Israel and Hamas.

But “[Biden] still has to get our approval. So that’s yet to happen, so that’s the issue,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know if there’ll be additional actions by the U.S. or not, with the Houthis, but certainly we want to send a message.”

Pocan stopped short of saying Congress should try to stop the president from further action, however.

“It’s way too early to start using words like rebuke,” Pocan said. “I think what we did is we put out a very preemptive [statement] to say: ‘Hey, hey, hey, don’t go too far down this path.’”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) noted in an interview that the House previously voted to cut off support for war efforts in Yemen but that “we’ll see if it materializes” following these latest strikes.

Right now, that seems unlikely. Biden isn’t yet seeing pushback from most members of his party, or members of GOP leadership. National security-oriented Democrats on Capitol Hill were quick to defend Biden’s decision as a reasonable response to Houthi attacks.

“I look forward to continued consultation with the Administration on this decision, as required by law, and encourage the President to persist in his efforts to keep this conflict from spreading further in the region,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Ben Cardin (D-Md.) in a statement, praising Biden’s “precise action against these increasingly dangerous provocations.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) called the strikes “necessary and proportional” in a statement.

Battles over war powers authorizations have intensified in recent years, as lawmakers have sought to claw back authorities that Congress granted to the president after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Biden has notably backed efforts to rewrite expansive war powers, but lawmakers have disagreed over certain details, like under what conditions the president should still have the authority to launch strikes.

The House voted in a bipartisan way to repeal two decades-old authorizations in 2021, though they never became law. And the Senate then muscled through a repeal of Congress’ 1991 Gulf War and 2002 Iraq War authorizations for military action in Iraq last year, though the House hasn’t yet acted on the legislation.

House Foreign Affairs Chair Mike McCaul (R-Texas), has led recent efforts to reform existing war powers. In the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel, he announced he was drafting an authorization for Biden to strike Hezbollah and other Iran-backed proxies in the Middle East.

On Friday, McCaul echoed accusations that the Houthi are coordinating with Iran and argued Biden has the constitutional authority to go even further, such as striking Iranian ships in self-defense.

“I do commend the administration for finally hitting back,” McCaul said on Fox News. “It’s about time. They only understand one thing in that part of the world. It is force and it is power.”

Whatever consensus exists to pare back war powers, there’s a larger bipartisan group that’s been reluctant to tinker with them. Conservative Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who founded the War Powers Caucus with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), said they face “an uphill battle” against moderates and hawks.

“You’ve got war hawks from both parties … and you’ve got this massive group of middle people who aren’t paying any attention at all,” Biggs said in an interview.

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