Congress Gets Assertive With the White House Over Syria

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Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, meets with reporters, discussing immigration, student loans, and Obamacare, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2013. The GOP leadership rejected the immigration bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Boehner said House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, calling the current laws a broken system. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini
Aug. 27, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers in Con­gress are re­mind­ing the White House to con­sult with Con­gress be­fore au­thor­iz­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia.

“If U.S. ac­tion is im­min­ent, it is our hope that the pres­id­ent doesn’t for­get his ob­lig­a­tions — to Con­gress, but, also, to speak dir­ectly to the Amer­ic­an people,” said House Speak­er John Boehner’s spokes­man, Brendan Buck, in a state­ment.

“The speak­er made clear that be­fore any ac­tion is taken there must be mean­ing­ful con­sulta­tion with mem­bers of Con­gress, as well as clearly defined ob­ject­ives and a broad­er strategy to achieve sta­bil­ity,” Buck said.

That’s a sen­ti­ment GOP lead­ers across the Cap­it­ol are also ex­press­ing, pitch­ing the bur­den of proof onto the ad­min­is­tra­tion to ex­plain it­self if mil­it­ary strikes are ordered.

“Be­fore any ac­tion is taken re­gard­ing Syr­ia, it is im­per­at­ive that Pres­id­ent Obama make the case to the Amer­ic­an people and con­sult with Con­gress,” said Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a state­ment. “He needs to ex­plain what vi­tal na­tion­al in­terests are at stake and should put forth a de­tailed plan with clear ob­ject­ives and an es­tim­ated cost for achiev­ing those ob­ject­ives.”

The state­ments come with Con­gress still on its an­nu­al Au­gust re­cess. But De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel says that U.S. forces are “ready to go,” and Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry severely re­buked Syr­i­an lead­er Bashar al-As­sad earli­er this week over what the ad­min­is­tra­tion says was the leth­al use of chem­ic­al weapons.

A U.S. at­tack on Syr­ia could come as early as Thursday, NBC News re­por­ted on Tues­day. Aides to House and Sen­ate mem­bers on the Armed Ser­vices, For­eign Af­fairs, and For­eign Re­la­tions com­mit­tees say that law­makers have talked to the ad­min­is­tra­tion. What’s not clear is wheth­er those talks will sat­is­fy Re­pub­lic­ans’ de­mands for in­clu­sion.

House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce, R-Cal­if., re­buked As­sad but also warned that mil­it­ary ac­tion could have “ser­i­ous con­sequence.” He also echoed Cornyn’s call for Obama to keep Con­gress and the pub­lic in­formed. “The Syr­i­an re­gime’s use of chem­ic­al weapons is bey­ond the pale,” Royce said in a state­ment. “The pres­id­ent should be mak­ing the case to the Amer­ic­an pub­lic, and his ad­min­is­tra­tion should come to Con­gress to ex­plain their plans. The con­sequences are too great for Con­gress to be brushed aside.”

The War Powers Res­ol­u­tion of 1973 re­quires the White House to no­ti­fy Con­gress with­in 48 hours of mil­it­ary ac­tion, ab­sent a vote in Con­gress to sup­port such ac­tion. With­in 60 days of that re­port to Con­gress, the pres­id­ent “shall ter­min­ate any use of United States Armed Forces,” un­less Con­gress has ac­ted, either de­clar­ing war or ex­tend­ing that peri­od, ac­cord­ing to the res­ol­u­tion. The res­ol­u­tion al­lows the White House an ad­di­tion­al 30 days for force re­mov­al, if Con­gress is no­ti­fied.

When the United States launched at­tacks against Libya in 2011, Boehner sent a let­ter to the pres­id­ent at the 90-day mark, say­ing that the White House “sys­tem­at­ic­ally avoided re­quest­ing a form­al au­thor­iz­a­tion for its ac­tion.” News ac­counts at the time noted that the let­ter came some 30 days after the 60-day peri­od ex­pired, sug­gest­ing that it is dif­fi­cult for Con­gress to en­force the act and that Re­pub­lic­ans’ ef­forts were half-hearted.

Re­ac­tion among law­makers to a po­ten­tial ac­tion in Syr­ia has been mixed, with some polit­ic­al lines blur­ring. Sen­ate hawks, in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­ans John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina, have be­gun call­ing for a mil­it­ary re­sponse.

“Now is the time for de­cis­ive ac­tions. The United States must rally our friends and al­lies to take lim­ited mil­it­ary ac­tions in Syr­ia that can change the bal­ance of power on the ground,” the law­makers wrote in a joint state­ment.

Some House Demo­crats also ap­peared to back mil­it­ary ac­tion.

“While the de­cision to use force in a for­eign con­flict is nev­er an easy one, I be­lieve that the United States in con­junc­tion with our in­ter­na­tion­al al­lies have a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion to help pre­vent the fur­ther use of these hor­rif­ic weapons against ci­vil­ians and take steps to tip the bal­ance away from this bru­tal re­gime,” said Rep. Eli­ot En­gel, D-N.Y., the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

Still, lib­er­al Demo­crats and con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­ans tele­graphed qual­i­fied op­pos­i­tion to the use of mil­it­ary force in Syr­ia.

“The United States Armed Forces doesn’t ex­ist to be a po­lice­man of the world,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a Fox News in­ter­view.

“I urge the ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­tin­ue to ex­er­cise re­straint, be­cause ab­sent an im­min­ent threat to Amer­ica’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity, the U.S. should not take mil­it­ary ac­tion without con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., in a state­ment.

Na­tion­wide, polling shows that Amer­ic­ans are skep­tic­al about mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia. Nearly 60 per­cent sur­veyed said the U.S. should not in­ter­vene, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Re­u­ters/Ipsos poll taken Aug. 19-23. Only 9 per­cent thought Obama should act, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey.

In­deed, the num­bers are not lost on Re­pub­lic­ans, who have poin­ted out that the pub­lic re­mains wary of get­ting in­volved.

“Sur­veys have shown that the Amer­ic­an pub­lic is hes­it­ant to in­ter­vene in Syr­ia,” Buck said in a state­ment. “This is un­der­stand­able, and it un­der­scores the need for the pres­id­ent to fully ex­plain what is at stake and out­line why he be­lieves ac­tion is ne­ces­sary.”

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