A growing number of lawmakers are calling on President Obama to secure congressional authorization for a military strike on Syria, and House Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday asked Obama in a letter to “personally make the case to the American people and Congress” for any potential intervention.
In a separate letter, 116 U.S. House members—including 18 Democrats — urged Obama to consult with Congress before taking any military action in Syria, insisting that doing otherwise would be unconstitutional.
The signers said they are ready to reconvene in Washington amid their summer recess at Obama’s request to “share the burden” of the decision-making regarding a response in the Syrian conflict, according to the letter, which was set to be delivered to the White House late Wednesday.
“We strongly urge you to consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria,” the letter said. “Your responsibility to do so is prescribed in the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973.”
“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, President Obama on Wednesday said he has not reached a decision on Syria yet.
“I think it’s important that if, in fact, we make a choice to have repercussions for the use of chemical weapons, then the Assad regime … will have received a pretty strong signal that, in fact, it better not do it again,” Obama said in an interview with PBS News Hour.
The letter from lawmakers was originally circulated by Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was among those who signed on. Earlier Wednesday, the letter had some 65 signatories, but that number ballooned to 116 by late in the afternoon.
Democratic cosigners included Reps. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; Zoe Lofgren, Sam Farr, and Anna Eshoo of California; Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader of Oregon; Rush Holt of New Jersey; Bill Enyart of Illinois; Tim Walz, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan of Minnesota; Michael Capuano of Massachusetts; Peter Welch of Vermont; Jim Matheson of Utah; Jim McDermott of Washington; and Bruce Braley and Dave Loebsack of Iowa.
The letter will continue circulating before delivery. Other lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans, have made similar, separate appeals that Congress be consulted.
In his letter to Obama, Boehner writes that “I have conferred with the chairmen of the national security committees who have received initial outreach from senior administration officials, and while the outreach has been appreciated, it is apparent from the questions above that the outreach has, to date, not reached the level of substantive consultation.”
Boehner adds, “It will take presidential leadership and a clear explanation of our policy, our interests, and our objectives to gain public and Congressional support for any military action against Syria.”He goes on to provide a list of specific questions he says should be addressed by the president. They include:
- What standard did the administration use to determine that this scope of chemical-weapons use warrants potential military action?
- What result is the administration seeking from its response?
- What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes?
- Would the sole purpose of a potential strike be to send a warning to the Assad regime about the use of chemical weapons? Or would a potential strike be intended to help shift the security momentum away from the regime and toward the opposition?
- Would Obama consider using the U.S. military to respond to situations or scenarios that do not directly involve the use or transfer of chemical weapons?
- Does the administration have contingency plans if the momentum does shift away from the regime but toward terrorist organizations fighting to gain and maintain control of territory?
- Does the administration have contingency plans to deter or respond should Assad retaliate against U.S. interests or allies in the region?
- Does the administration have contingency plans should the strikes implicate foreign power interests, such as Iran or Russia?
In a separate statement issued Wednesday, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who recently returned from a visit to the Jordan-Syria border as part of a congressional delegation, expressed concern about a potential U.S. military strike.
“Military action could have significant consequences, and there is no guarantee that it would improve the situation or promote a positive outcome. Any potential use of military force will have long-term costs and will put our troops in harm’s way,” Smith said. “Simply lashing out with military force under the banner of ‘doing something’ will not secure our interests in Syria.”
The White House has made it clear it believes there must be some punitive action taken, following the chemical attacks in Syria on Aug. 21 that the U.S. blames on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, the administration also insists that Obama has not yet made a decision on how to respond. Senate Democrats have kept mostly quiet on the issue. Messages to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office were not returned. Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., condemned the chemical-weapons attacks in a statement a week ago, calling for the United Nations to impose sanctions.
An exception has been Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who said Monday that absent a threat to U.S. security, the president should not take military action in Syria without congressional authorization.
Senate Republican reaction has been mixed. Some signaled their opposition to taking action in Syria. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he opposes military intervention and called on the administration to consult with allies in the region. “We can’t simply launch a few missiles and hope for the best,” Inhofe said in a statement. “No red line should have been drawn without the strategy and funding to support it.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a skeptic of intervention abroad, rebuked the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons, but he suggested on Wednesday that there was little benefit for the United States to involve itself in the conflict. “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,” he said.
But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, offered qualified support for a military strike. The White House has satisfied its requirement to consult Congress, Corker said, but it would be better if the administration sought congressional authorization. “While I’m opposed to American boots on the ground in Syria, I support surgical, proportional military strikes assuming the intelligence briefing establishes the claims that the administration is making,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not return requests seeking comment, but on Monday, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, warned the president that before any action is taken, Obama would have “to make the case with the American people and consult with Congress.”
On Wednesday, the White House released a list of the telephone calls made to foreign leaders since Aug. 21, hoping to underscore the extent that the administration is consulting the international community. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, and other administration officials all made calls.
But in the congressional letter, House lawmakers indicated that Obama should not look to the 2011 U.S. military action in Libya, which included cruise missile and other missile strikes, as a precedent.
In that case, they noted Obama had stated that authorization from Congress was not required because our military was not engaged in “hostilities,” as defined by law. An April 1, 2011, memo to Obama from the White House Office of Legal Counsel also concluded that the president then could authorize military action without congressional authorization “to safeguard the national interest” because the operations were “limited in their nature, scope, and duration.”
“If the use of 221 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 704 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and 42 Predator Hellfire missiles expended in Libya does not constitute ‘hostilities,’ what does?” the lawmakers asked. “If you deem the military action in Syria necessary, Congress can reconvene at your request,” the letter says. “We stand ready to come back into session, consider the facts before us, and share the burden of the decisions being made regarding U.S. involvement in the quickly escalating Syrian conflict.”
Apart from that letter to Obama circulated by Rigell, another letter was sent Wednesday to Obama by Reps. John Garamendi, D-Calif., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., both of whom are members of the House Armed Services Committee. It similarly urged that the president “obtain congressional authorization before ordering the use of military force in Syria.”
Jones sent his own letter to Obama. In it, he argues that it must be determined that Assad “is unquestionably responsible for the recent mass killing of Syrians by chemical weapons” before the president seeks congressional approval for taking military action. “That means sharing raw intelligence data with all members of Congress and not opposing presentations by those who believe that fact patterns point to other possible perpetrators,” Jones states in that letter to Obama.
Garamendi and Jones also sent another letter on Wednesday addressed to Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., requesting that “a full hearing before Congress regarding the potential risks, costs, and national security imperatives of any U.S. military intervention in Syria before the U.S. engages in any kind of military action in the region.”
For the sake of timeliness, the Jones and Garamendi letters were sent with only their two signatures on Wednesday, but they will be recirculating the letters to build support in the coming days, a Garamendi spokeswoman said.