Congress presses Obama for more details about possible Syria strike

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 28, 2013 


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio


UPDATED: Obama briefed Boehner Thursday, and they discussed the concerns raised in the letter.

Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck suggested more dialogue is needed. "Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed," Buck said.

WASHINGTON Any effort by President Barack Obama to launch military action against the Syrian regime faces growing resistance on Capitol Hill, as increasing numbers of lawmakers from both parties insist on having a say.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio on Wednesday wrote a lengthy letter to the president, asking about the administration’s objectives. It came after a day of mounting concern among lawmakers anxious for an explanation for the possible action against Syria.

In interview Wednesday night on PBS, Obama said, “I have not yet made a decision” on Syria, but he said he has “gotten options from our military” and discussed the issue with his national security staff.

“It is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action – which is a means, not a policy – will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” the speaker wrote.

Boehner asked Obama to “make the case to the American people and Congress” how a military strike “will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility” and slow the use of chemical weapons.

Obama briefed Boehner Thursday, and they discussed the concerns raised in the letter.

Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck suggested more dialogue is needed. "Only the president can answer these questions, and it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress, as well as communication with the American public, will be needed," Buck said.

The letter came after Reps. Scott Rigell, R-Va., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also circulated letters seeking answers. Rigell’s letter has been signed as of Wednesday night by 118 members, largely Republicans.

Some lawmakers are going further, raising serious questions about the need for U.S. involvement. The administration contends that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons demands a strong response.

“I cannot support military action in Syria unless the president presents to Congress his broader strategy in the region that addresses our national security interests and the budget to support it,” said Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Some Democrats were also wary.

“Even if he (Syrian President Bashar Assad) did use chemical weapons, that doesn’t give the president the authority to attack Syria” without going to Congress, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. “Our troops aren’t being attacked, our nation isn’t being attack. He has a responsibility to consult Congress first.”

Congress is currently in a summer recess that began Aug. 2 and is not scheduled to return until Sept. 9. Reconvening before that is highly unlikely. The upcoming Labor Day weekend is an important time for political activity back home, and the Jewish New Year begins at sundown Sept. 4 and continues for two days.

Boehner’s concerns reflect congressional worries rooted both in history and tradition.

Eleven years ago, lawmakers were consulted, and most eventually approved, giving President George W. Bush broad authority to wage war in Iraq. But public opinion about the conflict soured over time, sending Bush’s approval ratings tumbling.

The war vote became a political embarrassment for many lawmakers – notably some of the Senate incumbents, like Hillary Clinton, then a Democrat from New York, who had voted “yes” and sought her party’s presidential nomination in 2008.

The political stakes today appear high, particularly at a time when the country is not expressing widespread support for such a mission and 2014 campaigns are already underway.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and the 1973 War Powers Resolution requires a president to consult with Capitol Hill before acting, which the administration has been doing on Syria with key lawmakers.

Scholars differ on the reach of the War Powers Resolution but agree that it at least pressures an executive to confer with lawmakers.

“For too long, the legislature’s responsibility to authorize military force has been overlooked,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, said the public’s low view of Congress was driving lawmakers’ more aggressive response.

“I think members of Congress are reacting to critics of Congress over the years that it has been too timid, too reluctant, to get involved in matters of war and peace, and too deferential to presidents. Congress hasn’t declared war since World War II. Congress defers to presidents and appropriates once troops are in the field,” said Hamilton, who led both the House intelligence and foreign affairs committees during his four decades in Congress.

The major push for congressional involvement has come from a left-right coalition that withholds judgment on the mission but wants more information. Another group of lawmakers goes farther, saying Obama may be going too far.

“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is said to be weighing a presidential run in 2016.

Liberal lawmakers expressed similar qualms.

“It’s important for us to make clear to the president that there has to be a vote and he has to consult Congress,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who signed both letters. “The point for us in the U.S. Congress is not whether it’s (the situation in Syria) outrageous, but what we should do. Frankly, I’m skeptical about getting involved in another action in the Middle East. I don’t think it’s turned out well.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., added that “absent an imminent threat to United States national security, the U.S. should not be engaged in military action without congressional approval.”

Some want action against the Syrian regime but want to be involved in the decision making

“I strongly support a targeted, surgical, proportional approach to Syria on this,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has discussed the issue with administration officials.

“The president does have the ability as commander in chief to start activities like those that are being discussed,” he told Fox News, “but I think he’s much better off if he gets approval from Congress.”

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