The increasingly common involvement of the United States in military conflict resonates throughout American political institutions and affects the balance of power in important ways. We examine one particular aspect of executive augmentation of power in times of war—legislative deference—and move beyond a binary approach to the effect of war. Instead, we contend that executive advantage depends on the salience and severity of the conflict. Matters of war often drive upward the prevalence of security concerns in public discourse. Although this can leave the president to compete with Congress on a much more friendly playing field, perceptions of the war’s development can turn the tide. We empirically test our hypotheses with data spanning a 50-year period and find that the salience and severity of war matter, though not equally for both chambers of Congress. The findings hold implications for how we understand the institutional balance of power within and across conflicts, which represents a major aspect of American constitutional design and function.