More than 100 Lawmakers Urge Obama to Consult on Syria

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Congressman Scott Rigell, R-Va., gestures during an interview in his office in Virginia Beach, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. Rigel is a freshman Congressman being challenged by Democrat Paul Hirschbiel. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
National Journal
Billy House Michael Catalini
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Billy House Michael Catalini
Aug. 28, 2013, 8:29 a.m.

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.

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