August 31st, 2013
01:24 PM ET
12 months ago

Debate over Syria to intensify in Congress

Washington (CNN) - The war of words over how the U.S. should approach potential military strikes in Syria will only intensify in the coming days as President Barack Obama asks Congress to officially weigh in.

After he and top officials in his administration outlined evidence behind their claim that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a chemical attack that killed 1,400 and injured 3,000 earlier this month, Obama's call Saturday for congressional authorization to strike Syria surprised Washington but was applauded by members on both sides of the aisle.

Some, however, questioned what would happen in the turbulent country in the week before Congress returns from its August recess on September 9.

Several Senate Democrats on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees pushed on a Friday conference call with administration officials for Obama to formally consult them.

And more than 160 House members – including 98 Republicans and 63 Democrats – signed letters to Obama asking that make his case before them.

They pointed to his responsibilities under the 1970s-era War Powers Resolution that attempted to resolve sometimes conflicting constitutional provisions assigning the president commander-in-chief powers and Congress the authority to declare war.

"While the founders wisely gave the office of the president the authority to act in emergencies, they foresaw the need to ensure public debate – and the active engagement of Congress – prior to committing U.S. military assets," one such letter read. "Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution."

They sharply criticized as unconstitutional Obama's decision not to seek authorization before the 2011 U.S. military action in Libya, which included airstrikes. In that case, Obama notified Congress of the military action but said the War Powers Resolution, which presidents since Richard Nixon have found ways to skirt, did not apply in that case because the U.S. was not engaged in "hostilities" as defined in the law.

A poll released Friday showed nearly eight in 10 Americans believed Obama should be required to receive congressional approval before taking any military action.

Debating national security interests

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said the evidence he has seen contains "no ambiguity" and that the "use of chemical weapons against the innocent brings us to a point of no return."

"We say what we mean, we mean what we say, and we don't look away when undeniable war crimes are committed. I will work with the Senate leadership in support of an authorization for use of military force as expeditiously as possible," he said.

But that administration's arguments for responding to the August 21 attack they say was perpetrated by al-Assad's forces aren't accepted by all on Capitol Hill. The administration contends the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, while al-Assad's government has blamed jihadists fighting with rebels.

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said he was pleased by Obama's decision, which is a sign that Obama "agrees that there is no imminent threat" to the U.S. national security.

"It is incumbent on the president to make the case that military action is in furtherance of the vital national security interest of the United States," he told reporters after speaking to a conservative gathering in Florida. "I am troubled by the justifications the Obama administration has put forth so far.

"Much of their discussion has concerned what they describe as international norms and they have suggested that the U.S. military should be employed to vindicate so-called international norms," he continued. "In my view, U.S. military force is justified only to protect the vital national security interest of the United States."

He is in the same camp as Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican from the Foreign Relations Committee, who said little more in a statement than applaud Obama's move. But in an op-ed for CNN.com published Friday, he argued against U.S. intervention, saying, "it seems on all sides we have violence and chaos and it is unclear if any side will, in the end, be a friend of the United States."

Two top Senate Republicans – who have found themselves at odds with Paul and Cruz on other national security issues – repeated their call that airstrikes would not be enough.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham wrote in a joint statement, "Since the president is now seeking congressional support for this action, the Congress must act as soon as possible.

"However, we cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the president's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests," they wrote. "Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing."

A third Republican - Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin - appeared to concur, saying he would vote against an authorization if the administration planned only to make limited airstrikes.

"If that's all it is you're better off doing nothing and keeping them wondering what we would we do if we really got serious," Johnson told CNN.

How Obama's decision came about

Senior administration officials said Obama met with senior advisers Friday evening while wrestling with whether or not to formally consult Congress. He took a walk with his chief of staff, then asked for advice from Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said the officials, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity.

Missouri Republican Rep. Roy Blunt said Obama's decision was long overdue.

"After weeks of claiming he could and would make this decision on his own, the president's announcement today marks an astonishing change of course. While congressional approval is the best course of action and the right thing to do, it would have been the right course of action months ago."

And Senate Intelligence Committee vice-chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, said "the United States must respond" to the alleged chemical attack, but should have been called back early.

"He should have already presented Congress with a strategy and objectives for military action, including what impact this will have on our allies and enemies alike in the region," Chambliss said. "Leadership is about reacting to a crisis, and quickly making the hard and tough decisions. The president should have demanded Congress return immediately and debate this most serious issue."

At least three other members of the House and Senate also demanded Congress be called back early.

One Republican blasted Obama for "abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents.

"The president does not need Congress to authorize a strike on Syria," said Rep. Peter King of New York. "If Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians deserves a military response, and I believe it does, and if the President is seeking congressional approval, then he should call Congress back into a special session at the earliest date. The president doesn't need 535 members of congress to enforce his own redline."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, however, said "the president's role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress."

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, said the request for congressional authorization "is absolutely the right decision, and I look forward to seeing what the administration brings forward and to a vigorous debate on this important authorization. Further, now that the president has decided to use force and seek authorization, it is imperative that he immediately begins using every ounce of his energy to make his case to the American people."

Obama's statement puts on hold military action that as recently as Saturday morning seemed like it could be imminent.

On Friday, Kerry detailed the administration's case against al-Assad in a methodically-constructed address at the State Department. Shortly after, Obama described himself and the country as "war-weary," but said his team was "looking at the possibility of a limited, narrow act that would help make sure that not only Syria, but others around the world, understand that the international community cares about maintaining this chemical weapons ban and norm."

United Nations investigators departed Syria early Saturday, and word of a series of congressional briefings emerged.

Senators were to be briefed on Saturday afternoon and again on Sunday, both times by phone. Boehner's office Sunday afternoon classified briefing for House members.

In the meantime

Following the statement, key members of Obama's national security team were to speak with Republican and Democratic members of the Senate in separate conference calls. Sources said the calls would include Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

That call would be unclassified, apparently so the many members outside of Washington this Labor Day weekend could join from unsecure telephone lines.

One Republican senator on that call told CNN several senators on that call asked why the U.S. could wait for a vote, allowing Syria to prepare for possible airstrikes.

Administration officials said they could not answer those questions on the unsecured line, but would explain their comfort in waiting in a classified setting.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said Obama "wisely chose to seek congressional support."

"I have again urged the president to use this time to help the Syrian people defend themselves by assisting vetted elements of the Syrian opposition in obtaining more effective weapons such as anti-tank weapons," Levin said in a statement.

After stepping away from the cameras, Obama and Biden changed out of their suits and went golfing.

– CNN's Dana Bash and Jim Acosta reported from Washington; Gregory Wallace reported and wrote; Barbara Starr, Jill Dougherty, Paul Steinhauser, Laura Bernardini, Lisa Desjardins, Ted Barrett, Jennifer Rizzo, and Gabriella Schwarz contributed.


Filed under: Congress • President Obama • Syria
soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. Minne Mouse

    Once strike against Syria is a serious consideration to nothing at all. Let Syria not be Americas problem. If our country strikes against Syria then America is asking for problems. This would be serious matters for the entire country which in terms will escalate into other countries evolving into a war. It's just not worth it!

    The families in the middle class are already barely making it financially and the low income families are dependent up our government, so they cannot financially make it either. If our country breaks out into a "World War", there will be massive prices hikes on gasoline, food ect...........

    Who's going to be taking care of all of the "Americans" who's families will be left behind that are now shipped off to war, the families who will not be able to afford to put gasoline in the engines just to get to work, the ones who won't be able to buy food ect... because they are in the middle class because the costs will be to high and they get no assistance.

    The entire country will be living in poverty, except for the "Wealthy". Is the government seriously going to support the entire country, except for the wealthy this is and this is exactly what's going to be needed if a war breaks out! 98% to 99% of the country will be in financial hardship and it's already nearly at 50% of people who need some form of government assistance at the current state of our country.

    You can do what you want but my advice is to spare the entire country of misery by not striking against Syria and put our country and people first.

    August 31, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  2. just saying

    good news.... obama has agreed to get a vote in congress before initiating a useless and ineffective attack syria that will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars and have absolutely no effect other than the brand assad as the arab leader who stood up to the great satan and not only survived, but laughed. assad will gain from being attacked.

    hopefully congress will stop obama from embarrassing himself and this country. they will also stop obama from giving assad a reason to double down and attack israel and spread this conflict further.

    obama should never have shot off his mouth about the use of wmds. he invited this situation because assad as well as everybody else knows obama doesn't have the stomach for doing what it would take to bring assad down.

    obama has been a horrendous failure in the foreign policy arena and especially in the middle east. and where are all our allies that obama has supposedly become great friends with? i keep hearing in here that obama has restored out standing in the world! well, it seems that restored standing strangely comes without people wanting to be your ally. yes, just another leftist obama lie and myth. the truth is that obama has shown he is all too willing to throw allies under the bus while supporting groups that hate this country. when even the british say kiss off, you know obama has done major damage to our standing and relationship with our allies.

    August 31, 2013 02:20 pm at 2:20 pm |
  3. onlyfacts

    If our idiot republican congressman would quit saying no to everything Obama proposes, just to say no, he might consult them first. Also, to the Houston guy from a previous post who asked, "why don't the Syrian people just leave". First of all the majority of Syria is civilized, they don't have donkey's and camels ties up in their backyards ready for an escape. Secondly they have jobs, homes and processions and families. Imagine yourself loading up and driving whatever you could fit in your car (or donkey) and heading for Mexico. Where are you going to live? Work? Your questions showed the depth of your thought process. It's really easy to think it through step by step and understand, these people have nowhere to go. Most of your tea party buddies think Obama is destroying America, why aren't they all headed to Mexico or Canada if it's so simple? I'll buy them a donkey if they really want to leave!

    August 31, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  4. Gurgyl

    No more war.

    August 31, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  5. Has this administration gone mad

    Has this administration gone mad? Why would Syria do this just as the UN inspectors first arrive?

    The O administration must
    think the American people are truly stupid to believe this pathetic lie.

    This will only end in a blood bath between sunnis and sheite.

    August 31, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  6. ziad

    I am outraged at a president who doesn't have the courage to strike (a limited in scope and targets) Syria after the entire world watched children piled up like animals after the tyrant Assad bombed them with chemical weapons. I assure you that Assad and his army wouldn't even dare to fire a single bullet against US army Syrian army can only engage against Syrian people. we all saw how the syrian troops abandoned their tanks and took off their military costume during the 1982 invasion of Israel to lebanon

    August 31, 2013 03:07 pm at 3:07 pm |
  7. jpmichigan

    Obama has asked for Congress to decide, that is what happens when one uses MOUTH before BRAIN, and boxes ones self in a corner. WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO. Stay out f it now , you have already made yourself look week to the entire international nations. When one cannot lead, one continues to campaign, go back on the bus!!!!

    August 31, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  8. Gary

    I feel so much better now that I know our congress will help with the decision. Of course, we'll have to wait til they get back from vacation. It's also funny that Boehner " Respectfully requests" what a joke, he has never respected the President. Congress will screw this up like everything else they do, then blame the President.

    August 31, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  9. richbrunelle

    If I could discuss this topic directly with President Obama, I would suggest it might be a good time to tell everyone in the Middle-East that we have had enough of their stuff, their wars, their human rights violations, and their disrespect. And, then I would promptly have every person of American citizenship pack their dirty t-shirt and hop the next U.S. Military transport out of the Middle-East.

    I would not waste my time discussing how to best penalize Syria for “gassing” it’s own people. I wouldn’t argue over the wrongs they commit with every breath they take, I wouldn’t even bother losing any sleep over any country in the Middle-East. They have been using the U.S. repeatedly over the past twenty-five or so years, only to complain about American, Americans, and everything “in the West.”

    I mean, “How many times do you have to get “dumped on” before you get tired of being “dumped on?” The only reason for us to have an interest in the Middle-East, is OIL. We simply do not need their oil that bad anymore. Let them sell that stuff to the Russians. Let the entire Middle-East ally with Russia. It can do us no harm, and would likely mess Russia up real good. Face it, let Russia invest their money into that “litter box” and see how long they put up with their crap.

    Now, right now about 60% of the Country is waiting for you to “blow it” by putting us into another military conflict. Your political opponents are lining up to find a way to kick you out of Office. The Poll Takers and News Media are waiting at the edge of their seats to talk negatively about you and your capabilities as President. Me, I do not give a “dog scratch” about any of the aforementioned because I know you have done the best you can with the pile of crap they left you, and the lack of cooperation they give you, but that isn’t so much the topic of concern at the moment. I do however believe that were you to get us the heck out of every corner of the Middle-East immediately and let those folks decide their own fate, your ratings in the Polls would dramatically increase.

    August 31, 2013 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |
  10. Steve Nuneman

    Why all the concern about where we would go following a measured attack on Syria. An attack would be and should be motivated by the unconscionable killing of innocent civilians using poison gas. As a result the responsibility for that attack should fall upon the head of the leader who rules and made that decision. In other parts of the world the effort is put forth to target strategically the leaders of terrorist groups and I think the response to this crime against humanity needs to be levied upon the head of the serpent. This would send a strong message to any world leader that accountability will be enforced where the decisions are made.

    August 31, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  11. Gwiz

    This is a tough nut to crack at firsthand u have the mass slaughter of 1400 people which is just deplorable and totally depraived but at the same time. this could put us in a proxy war with russia us supporting rebels them the government and then theres iran who would undobtedly attack israel if we strike assad. even though we have the capacity and the will it doesnt mean we should .but if there is no response to the use of chemidal weapons then whos next. Turkey or the northern iraqi kurds whats to say they dont flood the golan heights with mustard gas or vx strikes on haifa or refugee camps in jordan since they think were unwilling to act unlike the iraq war there are actually WMDs in syria and now the international community is unwilling to act

    August 31, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  12. onlyfacts

    It's a bad spelling day!

    August 31, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  13. meepy

    There Are Good Choices! 1) get a U.N. task force in Syria to monitor and eliminate chemical weapons. If they are unacceptable worldwide, why is it OK for countries, including the U.S., to keep them? 2) ask the U.N. to clarify what weapons are banned and to also clarify what the consequences will be for using those weapons. 3) continue to ask for and demand world cooperation until this problem is solved.
    This is an opportunity for the governments of the world to join forces to make the world a safer place – if only they will take that opportunity.

    August 31, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  14. Dixie

    If we are waiting on Congress, why not call them back to the hill early and get it done. We look weak and foolish to the world. Next time keep your mouth shut till you know you will back up your words. It is a real shame that we are in this mess.

    August 31, 2013 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  15. Karina

    The whole world is now realizing how weak and useless your President is.
    All he does is political grandstanding with nothing to back it up.
    Every other country in the western world has held emergency meetings regarding the situation in Syria and taken a stand.
    Obama , after dithering around , will now wait until congress resumes in two weeks and put it to a vote.
    Shouldn't he have done that before telling the world that a strike is imminent .
    One should wonder who's side he is on anyway .....???

    August 31, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
  16. jboh

    I have to laugh at the TEA/GOP who have been critical of Pres Obama for not acting on Syria for the last year, and the last several yrs for not attacking Iran. Now that Pres Obama has chosen to take action they are all atwitter about how bad an idea it is. I guess they were for bombing before they were against it. Or maybe they were for it before Pres Obama was for it. An all to common theme w/TEA/GOP losers. GROW UP!

    August 31, 2013 07:20 pm at 7:20 pm |
  17. ge

    smart move mr.president .let the people decide once and for all to get out of the middle and tell the thieves at opec to go to hell

    August 31, 2013 07:56 pm at 7:56 pm |
  18. Name jk. Sfl. GOP conservatives,the garbage of America.

    If theirs no oil contracts the GOP will be against it being stooges for big oil like in Iraq with bush and Cheney !!!

    August 31, 2013 08:48 pm at 8:48 pm |
  19. boungiorno

    what mystifies me is the time frame this all seems to be taking place some sort of agenda

    August 31, 2013 08:49 pm at 8:49 pm |
  20. peace

    Ok first...America shouldn't even think of attacking Syria. Seriously, middle east has had enough of your BS! America calls almost every Arab country a terrorist, well just by attacking it that shows you what they think of America when they attack, and bashar lassad is not responsible for killing these innocent children! We know well the people such as political parties are doing what ever it takes to ruin the middle east and to get there hands on not only Syria but Lebanon as well. This has America and Israel written all over it!

    August 31, 2013 09:41 pm at 9:41 pm |
  21. Bamabegone!

    I think Obama should phone Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to ask him what day it would be convenient for him that the U.S. might strike.

    I'm not a warmonger, but, hey, POTUS - ever read the book, "Iron John" about being a MAN rather than a mama's boy? If you can't play in the big-boy game, stay home and help Michelle plant carrots.

    August 31, 2013 09:52 pm at 9:52 pm |
  22. Bamabegone!

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I think Obama should phone Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to ask him what day it would be convenient for him that the U.S. might strike.

    I'm not a warmonger, but, hey, POTUS – ever read the book, "Iron John" about being a MAN rather than a mama's boy? If you can't play in the big-boy game, stay home and help Michelle plant carrots.

    August 31, 2013 10:01 pm at 10:01 pm |
  23. jeannine

    It is the usa problem , we cannot allow this insane regime to get away with this...period

    August 31, 2013 11:19 pm at 11:19 pm |
  24. jeannine

    If we allow this insane regime to get off scot free with this....then watch out,,, other countries have the
    green light to use them also....Assad must be stopped...

    August 31, 2013 11:20 pm at 11:20 pm |
  25. Anaclet

    Those they did that crime we blame,they know why. I remind you They did that to their own people. Let the UN debate for that. And let the Arab countries to debate for that. If they want help so that's fine. It could be a trap to attack Innocent people. If they gaz their own people what they plan to do the Innocent neighbor. Please,We have a lot to debate for . There is a very important debate for the country, the budget . Please,let finish that first. There is healthcare ,Medicare need some money.

    September 1, 2013 01:32 am at 1:32 am |
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