WASHINGTON ― The Senate looked ready to shut down debate over President Donald Trump’s war authorization as tension escalates between the U.S. and Iran.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved to close debate on the $750 billion 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which Senate Democrats hoped to use as a vehicle to debate Trump’s right to launch military operations against Iran.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said he hopes to pass the bill by Thursday, with or without amendments. McConnell’s procedural move means a vote could happen as soon as Wednesday, though senators could agree to hold a vote sooner.
Inhofe and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., were able to add 100 uncontroversial bipartisan amendments to the underlying bill.
As of Tuesday evening, there was no agreement to take up further amendments, Inhofe said. That would leave behind some 600 amendments senators filed as of last week, some on hot topics like the southern border and expanding America’s nuclear arsenal.
A bipartisan amendment would require congressional approval for the use of military funds against Iran. It’s from Democratic Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Tim Kaine of Virginia, though it also has support from Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Kaine argued it would be “strange” to avoid the topic when the president has said he ordered and then aborted a retaliatory military strike on Iran ― with 10 minutes to spare ― because he was concerned about potential casualties.
“If what the president said was right, we were 10 minutes away from being at war,” Kaine said. “It would be really weird to have a discussion on the NDAA and have a kind of gag rule where we couldn’t do anything about Iran.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., pressed McConnell to hold a vote on Udall’s amendment, but after Democratic senators return from the presidential debates set for Wednesday and Thursday in Miami ― to avoid a hasty round trip.
“I hope he will not continue his shameful record of ducking the issues of the day when it comes to something as important as Congress’ role in the matter of war and peace,” Schumer said.
The amendment and the idea of a delay was unpopular with Republicans, particularly Inhofe, who blasted Schumer for suggesting the defense policy bill wait until after the July 4 recess.
“That’s the first time in my memory, and I’ve been around here a lot of years, that I’ve heard somebody admitting that a political consideration would trump ― trump, got it? ― a national security concern,” Inhofe said. “I would oppose that, yes.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of McConnell’s leadership team, said it would be better for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to first take up the Iran amendment. “This doesn’t really belong on the defense authorization bill, it should be a stand-alone,” said Cornyn.
Democrats must weigh whether to try to block the bill if they cannot get a vote on the Iran amendment.
“If McConnell decides to take a stand against any amendments, we’re going to have to take a whip count and see where we are,” said the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Senators voted 86-6 to open debate on the defense policy bill. Among the six Democrats who voted “no,” Iran amendment co-sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the amendment should be granted a vote.
“The drums of war are beating, and this chamber stays silent,” said Merkley, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “At this moment, we have a bill before us to address security issues, and yet we are being denied the chance to debate the most important security issue of all: whether or not the United States goes to war.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.