USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts flight operations on Jan. 22, 2024, in response to increased Iran-backed Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

USS Dwight D. Eisenhower conducts flight operations on Jan. 22, 2024, in response to increased Iran-backed Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. (Kaitlin Watt/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators are questioning the White House’s strategy of authorizing ongoing strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen, raising alarm about whether the military actions and their strategic purpose are legal.

Four senators have appealed to President Joe Biden with their concerns about the potential for the strikes to escalate into a broader war in the Middle East and said Congress must weigh in on a sustained air campaign.

“As tensions in the region rise, we believe that American participation in another war in the Middle East cannot happen in the absence of authorization by Congress, following an open debate during which the American public can be informed of the benefits, risks and consequences of such conflict,” the senators wrote in a letter.

The letter was organized by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and signed by Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. The senators are leading proponents of reasserting congressional war powers.

The U.S. is entering a third week of carrying out airstrikes against Houthi targets in response to the militant group’s attacks on ships transiting the Red Sea.

“Are they stopping the Houthis? No,” Biden said last week of the airstrikes. “Are they going to continue? Yes.”

Such comments are increasingly worrying lawmakers who believe the U.S. is now in the midst of an ongoing regional conflict that carries the risk of developing into a full-blown war. The Houthis have said they will not stop their attacks until hostilities end in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli troops are fighting Hamas militants.

“While the Houthis and their backers, namely Iran, bear the responsibility for escalation, unless there is a need to repel a sudden attack, the Constitution requires that the United States not engage in military action absent a favorable vote of Congress,” the senators wrote. “There is no current congressional authorization for offensive U.S. military action against the Houthis.”

They questioned whether directing military action to defend ships, most of which are not American, falls into the boundaries of presidential power. Biden invoked his authority as commander in chief when notifying Congress of his initial strikes in Yemen on Jan. 11 and in a Wednesday letter to lawmakers doubled down on his right to order a series of strikes on Monday.

“I directed this military action consistent with my responsibility to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad and in furtherance of United States national security and foreign policy interests,” Biden wrote.

The Pentagon has shied away from describing the back-and-forth confrontation with the Houthis as a conflict. Air Force Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon’s spokesman, said Tuesday that the U.S. strikes are instead an “action that’s being taken to disrupt and degrade” the Houthis’ ability to attack merchant vessels as well as U.S. Navy ships.

Senators said they have long advocated for a stronger congressional role in any decisions that endanger service members overseas. Two Navy SEALs were declared dead on Sunday after going missing during a Jan. 11 operation to seize missile components being shipped to Yemen.

“Protecting Americans, American interests and our service members who put their lives on the line every day remain our top priorities,” the senators wrote.

U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, last struck Houthi assets Wednesday, attacking two anti-ship missiles in a ninth round of airstrikes against the militants.

Congress has not signed off on any war authorizations since the Iraq War in 2002 and last asserted its war powers in 2019, when it passed a resolution calling on former President Donald Trump to end U.S. support for a Saudi Arabia-led military intervention against the Houthis. Trump vetoed the bill.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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