(The Hill) Lawmakers are returning to Washington this week as an in-limbo impeachment trial and the fallout from an airstrike that killed a top Iranian general have scrambled Congress's schedule only days into 2020.
Most senators are coming back to town on Monday, after the chamber held a brief 1 1/2-hour session on Friday; the House will return for votes on Tuesday night.
Washington was expected to return in January consumed by the Senate's impeachment trial. Instead, President Trump's decision to target and kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike has sparked a debate on Capitol Hill about trying to rein in Trump’s war powers.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced in a "Dear Colleague" letter released on Sunday night that the House will vote on a resolution this week to rein in Trump's ability to take military action against Iran without congressional approval.
"This week, the House will introduce and vote on a War Powers Resolution to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran. ... It reasserts Congress’s long-established oversight responsibilities by mandating that if no further Congressional action is taken, the Administration’s military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within 30 days," Pelosi wrote in the letter.
The House resolution, according to Pelosi, will be spearheaded by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and will be similar to a resolution from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Kaine introduced a war powers resolution on Friday that will force a vote as soon as this month on Trump’s authorities. The resolution would require Trump to remove U.S. forces from hostilities against Iran, “or any part of its government or military,” within 30 days unless it is in defense against an “imminent attack.”
“For years, I’ve been deeply concerned about President Trump stumbling into a war with Iran. We’re now at a boiling point, and Congress must step in before Trump puts even more of our troops in harm’s way. We owe it to our servicemembers to have a debate and vote about whether or not it’s in our national interest to engage in another unnecessary war in the Middle East,” Kaine said in a statement.
The resolutions need a simple majority to pass the Senate and House, but, given GOP support for the strike, they are unlikely to get the two-thirds support needed to override a potential veto if either makes it to Trump’s desk initially.
Both chambers also want to get briefed this week on Trump's decision, including the administration's claim that the strike was in response to an “imminent” threat. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he expects a briefing, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been working to set up a meeting with all senators.
Trump caught most of Congress, and Washington, flat-footed last week when he confirmed the United States had killed Soleimani. Top lawmakers, including Pelosi, were not told about the plan beforehand; congressional staff briefings started on Friday.
Democrats have been highly critical of the move over concern that it was “reckless” and that escalated tensions could further unsettle the region and provoke retaliation from Tehran, which has pledged “revenge” over the death.
Pelosi lashed out at the president for opting not to gain congressional approval before authorizing the fatal airstrike. The White House sent a formal notification to Congress on Saturday, but Pelosi said it “raises more questions than it answers” and called for an immediate briefing on the matter.
“This initiation of hostilities was taken without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran, without the consultation of the Congress and without the articulation of a clear and legitimate strategy to either the Congress or the public,” she said in a statement.
“As Speaker of the House, I reiterate my call on the Administration for an immediate, comprehensive briefing of the full Congress on military engagement related to Iran and next steps under consideration,” she added.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), during an interview with ABC’s "This Week," called the document “very unsatisfying.”
“This executive seems to have no check and again, he's been erratic and unsuccessful in almost every previous foreign policy endeavor. This one is the most dangerous of all. We need Congress to be a check on this president,” Schumer added.
Republicans have largely applauded Trump’s actions, arguing the president took necessary steps to take out an individual who targeted U.S. troops and U.S. personnel and coordinated with a network of terrorist organizations in the region.
“The president has all authority to do this. It is inside Iraq. He was protecting American servicemen and women — and what we'll do is Congress will come together,” McCarthy said during an appearance in Fox News on Saturday. “The president has the authority to protect our men and women, and he acted on that. And also, remember, what had taken place prior to this, the attack on the embassy and others.”
McConnell opened his Senate floor speech on Friday by declaring that “Iran’s master terrorist is dead.”
"No man alive was more directly responsible for the deaths of more American service members than Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” he added.
All eyes will be on Pelosi this week as lawmakers await a decision on when she will transmit the two articles of impeachment to the Senate.
The House passed two articles late last month largely along party lines — one on Trump abusing power in his dealings with Ukraine and another on him obstructing Congress during its investigation of those actions.
But Pelosi threw a curveball into the timeline for a Senate trial when she declined after the votes to say when, or if, she would send the articles across the Capitol. Instead, she said, she wanted more details on the trial process before she appointed House managers.
Pelosi has been tightlipped over the holiday break about her thinking on the timing for the impeachment articles, largely using the recess to fly beneath the radar. She did lash out at McConnell on Friday, saying he had signaled he would “feebly comply with President Trump’s cover-up of his abuses of power and be an accomplice to that cover-up.”
Pelosi, in the statement, did not tip her hand on timing but said the Senate “must immediately proceed in a manner worthy of the Constitution and in light of the gravity of the President’s unprecedented abuses.”
Democrats have indicated that they expect Pelosi to send over the articles eventually, potentially as soon as this week.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told reporters on Friday that “she will send them over. I mean, there’s no doubt about that.”
Democrats are pushing for McConnell, or absent that at least four Republican senators, to agree to a deal on the trial rules that would include compelling Ukraine-related documents and witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
They believe a steady stream of new reports, including newly unredacted emails between the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Pentagon, strengthen their case for calling additional witnesses as part of a Senate trial.
But McConnell and Schumer have been at loggerheads over witnesses for weeks. After punting on a trial deal in December, they spent a rare Friday session trading barbs on the Senate floor. They did not formally meet on Friday, though Schumer told a small group of reporters that he mentioned the need for witnesses to McConnell when they spoke on the floor.
Democrats want one resolution at the outset of the trial that would include both the rules and a deal on specific witnesses. McConnell and most of his caucus, however, want two resolutions, similar to the Clinton proceeding. The first resolution would establish the trial process, while the second would determine what, if any, witnesses would testify.
If Democrats are going to successfully call a witness they’ll need to peel off at least four Republican senators in addition to the 47 Democratic senators. Schumer has pledged, absent a broader deal with McConnell, that he will force votes on the Senate floor.
So far no Republican senator has backed Schumer’s specific request for witnesses. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have both been critical of McConnell’s pledge to coordinate trial strategy with the White House, but they’ve also been critical of the House’s process.
Collins also said that she was “open” to witnesses but that a decision on who, if anyone, should testify should wait until after initial arguments and senators are able to ask questions — similar to the Clinton proceeding.
Some Republicans are floating trying to dismiss the articles if Pelosi won’t send them over. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that he would try to work with McConnell “to change the rules of the Senate to start the trial without her if necessary.”
But McConnell, and his staff, have repeatedly shot down talk of starting the trial before the articles are sent to the Senate after the idea began circulating around Washington over the break.
“We can’t hold a trial without the articles. The Senate’s own rules don’t provide for that. So, for now, we are content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate,” McConnell said on Friday.
Asked last week how realistic the idea was that the Senate could start a trial without the articles, a spokesman for McConnell replied: “Zero percent.”
The Senate Finance Committee will hold a markup of Trump's trade deal with Mexico and Canada, the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, on Tuesday.
The committee action comes after the trade deal easily passed the House late last month.
Some GOP senators said they initially did not expect the Finance Committee to mark up the trade deal and questioned if it would be able to qualify for fast-track procedures under trade promotion authority without one.
But Grassley announced the markup last month, paving the way for the agreement to be sent to the full Senate.
The timing of a full Senate vote remains in limbo as lawmakers wait for the impeachment articles to be sent over from the House. The trade deal was initially expected to wait until after the Senate finished the impeachment trial.
Vice President Pence will swear in Republican Kelly Loeffler to be the next senator from Georgia on Monday.
Loeffler was appointed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) to succeed former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who stepped down at the end of 2019. Isakson, who won reelection in 2016, retired early because of his health.
Loeffler will hold the seat through a special election later this year, where she has said she intends to run for the rest of Isakson’s term that will last through 2022. Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) is also up for reelection this year.
McConnell has teed the Senate to take up Jovita Carranza’s nomination to oversee the Small Business Administration as he awaits the articles of impeachment.
The Senate will take a procedural vote on Carranza’s nomination to be SBA administrator on Monday night, paving the way for a final vote as soon as Tuesday.