Updated Jan 27, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden hit from all sides in Congress on Middle East strikes

President Biden. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images.

President Biden is facing rare simultaneous criticism from interventionists and isolationists in Congress over his recent strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen and other militia groups in the Middle East.

Why it matters: Dovish lawmakers on the ideological ends of both parties argue the president lacks the authority to unilaterally carry out the strikes — while, conversely, foreign policy hawks say he isn't going far enough.

  • An administration official told Axios they are "confident, after consultation with the Justice Department and interagency lawyers, that U.S. actions against Houthi targets are consistent with international and domestic law."

Driving the news: A group of 14 House Democrats and eight House Republicans signed onto a letter to Biden on Friday raising "serious concerns" about what they labeled "unauthorized" strikes against the Houthis.

  • The lawmakers urged the administration to "seek authorization from Congress before involving the U.S. in another conflict in the Middle East, potentially provoking Iran-backed militias ... and risking escalation of a wider regional war."
  • "As representatives of the American people, Congress must engage in robust debate before American servicemembers are put in harm's way and before more U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent on yet another war in the Middle East," they added.
  • Among the signers are some of the highest-profile members of Congress, including Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.).

That follows a similar letter from Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) earlier this week.

  • "What is your Administration's understanding of 'self-defense' in the context of these strikes," they asked, pointing to Biden's admission that the strikes have not deterred the Houthis.

The big picture: The Biden administration's strikes against both the Houthis and other Iran-linked militia groups in retaliation for attacks on U.S. forces and international shipping vessels has reignited a fierce congressional debate over presidential war powers.

  • The Senate last year passed a measure repealing a 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) that sanctioned the Iraq War, but the measure has stalled in the House due to opposition from GOP foreign policy hawks.
  • The White House, despite supporting the repeal of the 2002 AUMF, cited it as justification for a strike in Iraq earlier this month that killed a Shiite militia leader allegedly involved in attacks on U.S. forces.
  • In subsequent reports to Congress on attacks against the Houthis, the White House has leaned on constitutional authority to protect U.S. citizens abroad or, in the case of a strike against Iran-linked militias, the much broader 2001 AUMF that authorized the Global War on Terror.

The intrigue: It's no longer just foreign policy doves raising objections to the Biden administration's recent actions in the Middle East.

  • Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), one of Congress' preeminent defense hawks, said in a floor speech on Thursday that, rather than overstepping his authority, Biden is "failing to sufficiently exercise the authority he has."
  • "He's played whack-a-mole against warehouses and launch sites, but left the terrorists' air defenses and command-and-control facilities intact," the GOP leader said, while arguing against repealing AUMFs.

The other side: "We have explained that legal basis in various forms, including in public notifications to Congress consistent with the War Powers Resolution and in public letters to the UN Security Council," a Biden administration official said.

  • National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that the U.S. is committed to "holding the Houthis accountable" and Biden "has made clear we will not hesitate to take further action as appropriate."

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