Lawmakers Question Next Steps as US-Iran Conflict Escalates

News that the US killed Iranian Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a targeted strike early Jan. 3 reverberated across Capitol Hill, as lawmakers acknowledged the threat one of Iran’s top military officials posed to American assets but were publicly cautious about the possible ripple effects of his death.

Soleimani’s death in Iraq is the latest and largest development in a series of recent conflicts between the US and Iran. The US has said Iran and its paramilitary arm, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, is responsible for attacking ships, seizing oil tankers, and downing a Navy drone over the past year. The Quds Force is an elite branch of the IRGC, which the US said last April it plans to designate as a terror organization.

Lawmakers pointed to Soleimani’s direction of state-sponsored terrorism in Iraq and through the many Iranian-backed proxy groups. One such group killed an American contractor in late December, and other adherents attacked the US Embassy in Iraq on New Year’s Eve.

“Iran’s master terrorist is dead,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Jan. 3. “The architect and chief engineer for the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism has been removed from the battlefield at the hand of the United States military.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) echoed that sentiment, saying the US will respond to those who threaten its citizens. 

But while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle noted Soleimani’s key role in orchestrating attacks, they raised concerns about the potential impact of President Donald Trump’s order to launch the airstrike. Inhofe called for the two nations to de-escalate their rekindled tensions, saying that’s “preferable and possible” if US adversaries want it.

“His end is the beginning of a much more challenging and dangerous confrontation between the United States and Iran,” SASC Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) added. “Killing Soleimani in this manner strengthens the hardliners in Iran and increases the likelihood that Iran’s proxies will be triggered into action. And if his killing results in America abandoning the US Embassy in Iraq, it will be a coup for the Iranians.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, called for other countries to join the US in discouraging “further Iranian aggression” if they want peace and stability in the Middle East.

“The US must be fully prepared for whatever actions Iran may take after the death of Soleimani and Iran’s proxy militia leader in Iraq [Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis],” he said.

Some warned that the airstrike at the Baghdad airport, for which Iran has vowed revenge, could threaten other Americans in the region. HASC Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) called for more information about how this and other military actions “will protect US global interests while ensuring the safety and security of our personnel in the region and worldwide.”

Congress’s top Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, criticized the Trump administration for failing to consult with lawmakers ahead of the airstrike.

Schumer, a member of the so-called “Gang of Eight”—the top four Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate plus the chairmen and ranking members on the House and Senate intelligence committees—said that group was not briefed in advance as is typical of high-level operations.

“What was the legal basis for conducting this operation? And how far does that legal basis extend?” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Which responses do we expect? Which are most likely? Do we have plans to counter all of the possible responses? … What does this action mean for the long-term stability of Iraq and the trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives sacrificed there?”

Capitol Hill staffers received a Defense Department briefing on the situation Jan. 3, a HASC spokeswoman confirmed. Reed said that day he hoped lawmakers will get a detailed, highly classified briefing by Jan. 7, when the Senate reconvenes.

Could the US have acted differently to stop the attacks on American interests that the Trump administration says Solaimani was masterminding? Reed asked Jan. 3 on CNN.

“We have to have those facts in order to establish the credibility of the claims that this was imminent and that there was no alternative, no effective alternative, other than taking out Soleimani,” like the potential targets and the extent of Solaimani’s involvement, Reed said.

Schumer suggested the White House lacks the authority to go to war with Iran, and needs congressional approval to continue adding troops in the region. Pelosi also noted that the administration does not have a formal, specific Authorization for Use of Military Force that would green-light military action against Iran. 

The White House has asserted that a post-9/11 AUMF that covers certain threats in Afghanistan and Iraq can apply to these new developments in the Middle East. Some in Congress have raised the prospect of revamping the war powers process and requirements for what details the President needs to provide to proceed with combat.

“The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation and on the next steps under consideration by the administration, including the significant escalation of the deployment of additional troops to the region,” Pelosi said.

Some are already taking the legislative route to shape how the situation unfolds. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Jan. 3 filed a war powers resolution to require debate and a vote on congressional authorization for hostilities against Iran. It would not limit the military’s ability to defend the US against an imminent attack.

The same day, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) co-sponsored a bill to block spending on combat operations in or against Iran without congressional approval.

US lawmakers also start the week faced with a quickly changing situation in Iraq as a result of the drone strike. In an emergency session Jan. 5, Iraq’s parliament passed a non-binding decision to expel US troops from the country, a move that needs final approval from the Iraqi government but that Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi supports.

Removing troops from Iraq would hamper America’s effort to keep the Islamic State group from resurging, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Jan. 5 on CNN. The US’s departure would end American-led training of local troops to defend their homeland and remove a key strategic position in the region, signaling a victory for Iranian influence.

“We’re going to have to take our eye off the ball when it comes to fighting ISIS in Syria, because we’re not going to be able to, I think, protect a small number of forces there,” Schiff said. “So we’re either going to have to send more forces or have to withdraw the forces that we have.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said ISIS is in some ways a greater threat to American interests than Iran.

“I think it is proof that this ultimately may accrue to the detriment of American national security interests,” he said Jan. 5 on CBS.

Others across the aisle have a different take on the airstrike’s repercussions.

“I think this was a, frankly, a brilliant move,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and an Air National Guardsman, said on Fox News. “We don’t know what the future holds. We’re more than prepared to deal with it, but the message it sends is America is back, don’t mess with us.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated Jan. 5 to reflect new developments in the region.