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Overnight Defense: House passes measure to limit Trump on Iran | Pelosi vows vote to end 2002 war authorization | Officials believe Iran accidentally shot down passenger plane

Overnight Defense: House passes measure to limit Trump on Iran | Pelosi vows vote to end 2002 war authorization | Officials believe Iran accidentally shot down passenger plane
© Greg Nash

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: The House on Thursday approved a measure aimed at restricting President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE's ability to go to war with Iran, a day after a number of lawmakers expressed frustration at the briefing where the administration provided its arguments for a drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. 

In a largely party-line vote of 224-194, the House passed a war powers resolution that would direct the president to end military hostilities with Iran unless Congress specifically authorizes it or the United States faces an "imminent armed attack."

Does it have any teeth? The measure would not need Trump's signature because it's what's known as a "concurrent resolution." But that has also left Democrats open to criticism that the resolution is just a messaging bill since concurrent resolutions are typically nonbinding, though their use to force the end of military hostilities under the War Powers Act is untested in court.

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases House Democrats urge congressional leaders to support .1B budget for IRS Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate MORE (D-Calif.) insisted Thursday the resolution has "teeth" and would send a strong message.

"This is with real teeth," Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. "We're taking this path because it does not require ... a signature of the president of the United States. This is a statement of the Congress of the United States, and I will not have that statement be diminished by whether the president will veto it or not."

The administration's argument: The administration has argued killing Soleimani was necessary to prevent an "imminent" attack, but has proved little evidence publicly beyond citing his past attacks. Trump also claimed Thursday that Iran was "looking to blow up" the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

"We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy," Trump told reporters at the White House, referring to the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani a week ago.

"We also did it for other reasons that were very obvious. Somebody died, one of our military people died. People were badly wounded just a week before, and we did it," Trump continued, pointing to the death of an American contractor killed in a rocket attack in Iraq.

But lawmakers unconvinced: Democrats and some Senate Republicans have expressed anger over what they described as a lack of information at an administration briefing, which took place one day after Iran responded to the Soleimani killing by firing missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. 

Democrats said the briefing – which was delivered by Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperISIS Task Force director resigns from Pentagon post in continued post-election purge The perils of a US troop drawdown to the Afghan army and tribes Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia MORE, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration US sanctions Chinese company for conducting business with Maduro regime Can Antony Blinken make American foreign policy great again? MORE, CIA Director Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelCongress set for chaotic year-end sprint A strong, committed intelligence community is part of America's good fortune Women set to take key roles in Biden administration MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley – offered unconvincing evidence that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack.

Trump urges Republicans to back him: Ahead of the vote Thursday, Trump urged Republicans to oppose the resolution.

"Hope that all House Republicans will vote against Crazy Nancy Pelosi's War Powers Resolution," he tweeted Thursday morning. "Also, remember her 'speed & rush' in getting the Impeachment Hoax voted on & done. Well, she never sent the Articles to the Senate. Just another Democrat fraud. Presidential Harassment!"

A few defectors: While most Republicans fell in line, there were three defections.

Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzGaetz: Trump 'should pardon everyone' including himself to quash liberal 'bloodlust' Florida passes 850k coronavirus cases Florida GOP Rep. Mike Waltz tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Fla.), a vocal Trump supporter, backed the resolution after Democrats agreed to his amendment to remove a line from the findings section of the measure that said "the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, as well as Iran's ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases, risks significant escalation in hostilities between the United States and Iran."

"I don't think that our country needs to get pulled into another forever Middle East war in the absence of congressional approval. I'm very pleased that my amendment stripping out any reference to Soleimani, stripping out any critique of the president was adopted, and as a result, I'm going to vote for the resolution," Gaetz told The Hill.

"I had a very productive conversation with the president and I know that he wants to end these wars as badly as I do," he added. "Matter of fact, he told me that he wants to end these wars even more than I do."

Rep. Thomas MassieThomas Harold MassieCheney seeks to cool tensions with House conservatives House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power Ron Paul hospitalized in Texas MORE (R-Ky.) and Rep. Francis RooneyLaurence (Francis) Francis RooneyTime to concede: The peaceful transition of power is an American tradition House GOP lawmaker: Biden should be recognized as president-elect Most Republicans avoid challenging Trump on election MORE (R-Fla.) also crossed the aisle to vote in favor of the measure.

Others claim 'show vote': Most Republicans, though, argued the resolution was a show vote intended to undermine Trump.

"This is a meaningless vote that only sends the wrong message that the House Democrats would rather stand with the socialist base than stand against Iran," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' MORE (R-Calif.) said at his weekly press conference.

The legality: The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that a separate law that said a concurrent resolution was binding was an unconstitutional "legislative veto." But some legal analysts argue the War Powers Act "is in a unique category," according to the Congressional Research Service.

Some Democrats, too, opposed the measure over it being a concurrent resolution.

"I refuse to play politics with questions of war and peace and therefore will not support this resolution," centrist Rep. Max RoseMax RoseGOP sees path to House majority in 2022 Bickering Democrats return with divisions Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement ahead of the vote. "Going forward, Congress must be proactive in living up to our Constitutional duties to declare war and authorize the use of military force. This resolution is not that."

In the other chamber...: The Senate, meanwhile, is expected to move on a similar war powers resolution from Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineCongress set for chaotic year-end sprint Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus MORE (D-Va.). His measure is a "joint resolution," though, and so would have the force of law – and need Trump's signature.

"I think we would like to try to get one to the president's desk," Kaine said Thursday on taking up his measure instead of the House measure.

Democrats can force a vote on Kaine's measure as soon as Tuesday in the Republican-controlled chamber. It's unclear, though, whether the resolution can muster the simple majority needed to pass the Senate.

And on the 2002 AUMF: Hours before the House voted on the war power resolution, Pelosi said that the chamber will soon vote to repeal a 2002 resolution that empowered the Pentagon to conduct military operations in Iraq.

Earlier in the week, Pelosi said the House "may" vote on Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Top contender for Biden Defense chief would be historic pick MORE's (D-Calif.) resolution to repeal the earlier action, known as an authorization for use of military force (AUMF), that governed the Iraq War. On Thursday, Pelosi was more concrete, saying the vote is imminent.

"We will have that resolution coming up soon under the leadership of congresswoman Barbara Lee," Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol.

 

OFFICIALS BELIEVE IRAN SHOT DOWN UKRAINIAN PLANE: U.S. officials on Thursday said they believe Iran accidentally shot down a Ukraine-bound passenger plane this week in Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard, according to multiple media reports.

The Boeing 737-800, belonging to Ukraine International Airlines, crashed shortly after taking off from Tehran. The flight, carrying mostly Iranian and Iranian-Canadians, was headed to Kyiv.

The crash was initially attributed to technical issues, but U.S. officials suspect it was likely accidentally downed by Iranian air defenses. 

Trump's suspicions: Speaking to reporters about the incident, Trump said "somebody could've made a mistake" as the plane was "flying in a pretty rough neighborhood." He added the crash had "nothing to do" with the U.S.

"I have my suspicions," Trump said during a White House event on environmental regulations. He did not elaborate on or offer evidence for his speculations. 

Asked if he thought it was a mechanical issue, Trump said he didn't "think that's even a question, personally."

"I have a feeling that it's just -- something very terrible happened," he said.

Canada's intelligence: Canadian Prime Minister Justin TrudeauJustin Pierre James TrudeauCanada moves to limit prescription drug exports after Trump order Trudeau says Canadians will likely have to wait until 2021 for first doses of COVID-19 vaccine Toronto goes into lockdown as COVID-19 cases climb MORE said in a Thursday press conference that his country has intelligence from multiple sources including its allies and own agencies that "indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface to air missile." Trudeau added that the downing "may well have been unintentional."

One official told Reuters that U.S. satellites had detected the launch of two missiles shortly before the plane crashed.

A clip is uncovered: A 19-second video clip released by The New York Times later on Thursday appears to show the moment the plane was shot down shortly after departing from the airport in Tehran.

Footage purportedly shows the plane being hit by a missile and what appears to be mid-air explosion shortly after, though the plane does not explode and continues to fly. The plane later crashes in the clip while allegedly attempting to return to the airport.

Ukraine's stance: Ukrainian officials have outlined several possible scenarios of their own to explain the deadly crash, including collision with a drone, terrorism or a missile strike, or an engine explosion.

The country's investigators want to search the site of the crash southwest of Tehran for possible debris from the Russian-made missile used by the Iranian military, according to Reuters.

Iran's position: Iranian aviation officials, meanwhile, attributed the crash to an unknown technical malfunction and said the plane had started to turn back to the airport. Iran cited witnesses on the ground and in a separate aircraft who said they saw flames from the plane while it was still in the air. 

"Since the Ukrainian pilot was trying to return to the airport, a rocket, missile strike or the country's defense system is out of question," said Hassan Rezaifar, head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization commission for accidents investigation, quoted by Iran's state news agency, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"No missile part was found in the crash scene."

US in the dark: A U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal that satellite data pointed to nothing out of the ordinary on the jet until the sudden loss of data and altitude, which suggested potential hostile action to some officials.

It is unclear how much U.S. investigators will be able to glean from the crash site as Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, said he would not offer the U.S. or Boeing access to the downed plane's black box. 

Rezaifar, however, said the investigation into the crash will be conducted according to the International Civil Aviation Organization's international standards which allow the home country of both the airline and plane manufacturers to appoint a representative to participate in the probe.

Timing: The plane crash occurred hours after Iran launched missiles on two Iraqi air bases used by U.S. troops as retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The White House has said there were no U.S. or Iraqi casualties in that attack.

 

IMPEACHMENT LATEST: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday said she would likely send articles of impeachment to the Senate soon despite winning no concessions from Republicans on allowing witnesses to testify during a trial on the House's charges against President Trump. 

Though she refused to budge on her previous demands, Pelosi signaled that the next phase of impeachment may be imminent.

"I'm not holding them indefinitely," Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol, referring to the two articles passed by the House in December over Trump's dealings with Ukraine. "I'll send them over when I'm ready, and that will probably be soon."

Pelosi's play: Pelosi reiterated her position that she wants more details on the parameters of an impeachment trial from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate approves two energy regulators, completing panel On The Money: Biden announces key members of economic team | GOP open to Yellen as Treasury secretary, opposed to budget pick | GAO: Labor Department 'improperly presented' jobless data Senate GOP open to confirming Yellen to be Biden's Treasury secretary MORE (R-Ky.) before sending over the articles.

"We need to see the arena in which we are sending our managers. Is that too much to ask?" Pelosi said.

She later clarified, "It doesn't mean we have to agree to the rules, or we have to like the rules. We just want to know what they are."

The background: A trial in the Senate cannot begin until Pelosi sends the articles of impeachment, passed by the House on Dec. 18 and charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, across the Capitol. In a surprise move last month, she declined to name impeachment managers or send the articles to the Senate following House passage.

Over in the Senate: Earlier Thursday, McConnell said that the Senate would move to other legislative activities next week if Pelosi doesn't send over the articles soon.

"If the Speaker continues to refuse to take her own accusations to trial, the Senate will move forward next week with the business of our people," McConnell said from the Senate floor. "We will operate on the assumption that House Democrats are too embarrassed to ever move forward."

Pelosi dismissed those barbs, and all but asked McConnell to take up separate legislation amid the impasse over impeachment. She singled out a bipartisan trade deal with Canada and Mexico, passed by the House last month, as legislation the Senate could take up in the meantime.

"He said, 'If you don't send them over, I'm going to pass the Mexico-U.S.-Canada trade agreement,'" she said. "OK!" 

Look to next week: McConnell told Republicans during a closed-door lunch on Thursday to expect Trump's impeachment trial to start next week. 

Three GOP senators said the Republican leader warned lawmakers during the caucus meeting that they should not expect to be able to go home next weekend, indicating that the long-delayed trial will be underway. 

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Air Force Association's will hear from Air Force Maj. Gen. John Shaw, combined force space component commander of U.S. Space Command, on "Space Power to the Warfighter," at 8:30 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. 

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthyRyan McCarthyArmy secretary responds to news reports on sexual assault allegations in military: 'we must do better' OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Esper reportedly working with lawmakers to strip Confederate names from bases | Enemy attacks in Afghanistan jump by 50 percent, watchdog says | Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing Fort Hood soldier arrested, charged in Chelsea Cheatham killing MORE will speak on "The Army's Strategy in the Indo-Pacific," at 9 a.m. at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Pentagon notifies Congress of $2.75B proposed fighter jet sale to Singapore

-- The Hill: Kaine revises Trump Iran war resolution as he courts GOP support

-- The Hill: Paul fires back at Graham over Iran criticism: 'He insults the Constitution'

-- The Hill: Iranian commander: Strikes on US targets 'did not intend to kill'

-- The Hill: Iran: Burning jetliner tried to turn back to airport

-- The Hill: Pence: Intelligence shows Iran directing militias not to attack U.S. targets

-- The Hill: Senators introduce resolution warning that Congress has not authorized Iran war