Jan 30, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Congress ruptures on growing Middle East conflict

Illustrated collage of a topographic map of the Middle East, overlaid with an image of a bombing in Gaza. The map is covered in red circles, with blue circles and stripes off to the side on the outskirts.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

A deadly attack on U.S. soldiers in Jordan has Congress clashing fiercely over the degree of American involvement in a growing conflict in the Middle East.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has said a response is coming – and lawmakers are trying to shape what it looks like and whether it draws the U.S. fully into a regional war.

Driving the news: President Biden said Sunday that three U.S. service members were killed and many more injured in a drone strike carried out by Iran-backed militant groups based in Iraq and Syria.

What they're saying: The idea of a direct strike on Iran has been met with fierce bipartisan pushback from some lawmakers.

  • "My concern here is that people will say things in the 24 hour news environment and then recognize they have a 20-year commitment on the back-end that they aren't prepared to fully execute on," said Rep. Zach Nunn (R-Iowa).
  • "This isn't a movie," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). "I'm really concerned [about] these people who are rattling their sabers ... everybody thinks they're General Patton. The bottom line is, this is real life."
  • Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), dismissing calls for an attack on Iran from fellow Republicans, told Axios: "Same guys, same note, different place. They play the same song over and over again."

The intrigue: Even Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the hawkish chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wouldn't go as far as some of his Senate Republican counterparts in firmly endorsing an attack inside Iran.

  • McCaul told Axios the U.S. should go after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – but that while hitting Iran directly "should be an option on the table, you have to consider all the ramifications of doing that."

Zoom in: Some lawmakers said they want to see more intelligence on the attack before commenting, and members of the House and Senate have requested briefings from the administration.

  • The House Intelligence Committee is set to receive a pre-planned briefing Tuesday afternoon on the Middle East and Ukraine that is expected to include information on the Jordan attack, according to three staffers familiar with the matter.
  • The briefing will be delivered by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns, the sources said.

The big picture: The clash over the administration's response comes amid a broader debate over presidential war powers and whether Biden should be seeking congressional authorization for a growing campaign of airstrikes.

  • Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) told Axios: "I might lose the vote, but this body ought to vote straight up or down: Are we going to be putting our troops in harm's way? Are we going to fire a missile into Iran?"
  • "There is a time at which [these strikes] go outside of the point of self-defense. That is a time limited authority, and we are nearing the time at which the president should come to Congress," said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.).

The other side: "Oh, please. You can't put the genie back in the bottle," Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) said of seeking congressional approval for the strikes.

  • "This is not war, we're not declaring war. These are tactical strikes. ... All presidents need the ability to protect our military abroad without coming to a place that can't pass a bill anymore."
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