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Rep. Eliot Engel, Chair Of House Foreign Affairs Committee, Discusses Iran Situation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many lawmakers still have big questions about why the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani and what the U.S. plans to do now. Congressman Eliot Engel chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and joins us from his home district in New York.

Welcome.

ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: You were briefed Friday about the drone strike. Have you seen evidence that there was an imminent threat to the U.S., as the administration says?

ENGEL: Well, I haven't seen evidence. The administration insists that there was, but I see none of that. You know, Soleimani - I know he seems to be revered in Iran but, you know, had a lot of blood on his hands, and so I won't shed any tears for him. But what the administration did, what the president did is absolutely unconstitutional and ridiculous. Later this week, the House is going to take up a war powers resolution, which would limit the president's actions against Iran.

SHAPIRO: I do want to ask you about that resolution in a moment.

ENGEL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: But first, you say this is a man who has blood on his hands and that the president's decision to order the strike against him was unconstitutional. President Obama's last homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, who we speak with elsewhere on the program, argues that this was constitutional - I understand you disagree with the decision to order the strike but to say that the strike was not allowed in the first place.

ENGEL: Well, I would say that the administration, once again, has ignored Congress' authority as a coequal branch of government - we've had this problem from Day 1 - and has failed to consult congressional leaders or provide notification of the strike. I would say that that is not the way it should've happened.

SHAPIRO: Now that the strike has happened, I want to ask you about what this does to the geopolitical state of play. Yesterday on NBC's "Meet The Press," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

MIKE POMPEO: We're definitely safer today - 100% certainty that America is safer today.

SHAPIRO: Congressman, do you agree?

ENGEL: I don't know. You know, I don't know. I'm going to hear what the administration has to say. Congress is just - at least on the Democratic side of the aisle, we feel very, very strongly, and I feel very, very strongly, that little by little, Congress' power as a coequal branch of government has been eroded. And this is what you get when it's eroded. And I think this is a very dangerous situation, so...

SHAPIRO: In your view, is it a war? Would you say the U.S. is now at war with Iran? Is that a word you're comfortable using?

ENGEL: Well, I don't know if we're at war in terms of, you know, every day at war. But I certainly think that we have a - with - if Congress does nothing, we will slip slowly back into that. We've been in endless war for 20 years. We were told all kinds of things by previous administrations - turned out not to be true. I think there's not a lot of congressional support to plunge us back into another war.

SHAPIRO: So let me ask about this war powers resolution that the House plans to introduce and vote on this week. In the Senate today, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican, characterized Democratic criticism of the attack on Soleimani this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: Most Democrats' distaste for this president dominates every thought they express and every decision they make.

SHAPIRO: Since the Republican-controlled Senate is not going to act on this bill once the House presumably passes it, is the House vote purely symbolic here?

ENGEL: No, it's not symbolic - just symbolic. We have a responsibility. You know, Mitch McConnell has let everything die in the Senate. I mean, it isn't only impeachment stuff or now stuff with Iran. It's like every single thing that we've passed, from health care to - you name it - has gone to death in the Senate because it's not being acted upon. So I, frankly, don't think Senator McConnell is in a position to give anybody directions on how things should be done.

SHAPIRO: Let me also ask you about what happened in Iraq over the weekend, where the parliament voted to expel U.S. troops. More than 5,000 American service members are currently in that country, and they are being repositioned now, in line with Iraqi wishes. What impact could a withdrawal have on American interests in the region?

ENGEL: It just shows why the American people don't have the stomach to plunge into endless war, at which point it doesn't always wind up the way you think it will.

SHAPIRO: But, I mean, are you concerned about, for example, the fight against ISIS and the resurgence of that group?

ENGEL: Of course. Of course. I think that this strike will have negative repercussions in so many different ways, and that, of course, is one of them. But I, again, want to emphasize that Congress really needs to reestablish itself as a coequal branch of government. You know, we had no war against Iran unless it's paid for, and we had put it in the NDAA and the...

SHAPIRO: The National Defense Authorization Act, yeah.

ENGEL: Yes, and the Senate took it out, so we're going to do some more of that this week. And we're going to be very noisy in the House because we're very, very unhappy with what we regard as a foolish move.

SHAPIRO: Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, a Democrat, chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Thanks for speaking with us today.

ENGEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE WEDNESDAY'S "MURMURATION (FEAT. SHOPAN)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.