September 1st, 2013
01:18 PM ET
5 years ago

Members of Congress split over Syria decision

(CNN) – Lawmakers were divided Sunday on whether to support President Barack Obama's call for military action in Syria.

Obama announced Saturday he believes the United States should take limited action, but he pledged to seek approval from Congress first.

Supporters of a military strike said Sunday the U.S. must send a message to Syria and other countries that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Opponents argued the U.S. should pursue more diplomatic channels rather than position itself in yet another overseas military conflict.

The split does not simply fall along with party lines. Some lawmakers support the president's decision to come to Congress, while others are bothered he did not act more quickly. Others who are undecided said they want to see a clear plan of action for taking out Bashar Al-Assad, while some are more likely to be on board if the president can build a broader coalition.

The White House is already working to present its case to lawmakers. Members of Congress will get a classified briefing on Syria Sunday afternoon, and Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham – two powerful Republicans on the Armed Services Committee–are headed to the White House on Monday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced Sunday the U.S. has evidence that signatures of sarin were found in Syria, said on CNN he's confident Congress "will do the right thing."

Not a partisan issue

Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia stressed Sunday that partisan gridlock has nothing to with the division over what to do with Syria.

"Party does not have anything to do with this," he said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I really believe that. Maybe that's some American idealism coming out of me, but I've not heard one member of my Republican conference mention anything about partisanship here."

That sentiment was evident Sunday as a number of lawmakers gave varying reasons for their decision to support or oppose action in Syria.

Rep. Adam Smith, a top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was skeptical that launching strikes against Assad's regime would do anything to deter him or anyone else from using chemical weapons in the future. He pointed to the death of Saddam Hussein as an example.

"If this is going to send a signal to dictators that you can't do that, here we are not too many years later (after Hussein's ouster) and Assad is using chemical weapons," he said on CNN. While the arguments for action in Syria are "compelling," Smith would not commit to a "yes" or "no" vote.

His fellow Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said he would readily vote "yes" if the vote were held today, saying "the whole world is watching."

"My God, we're the United States of America, and we have to stand for something," he told CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger. "If we're not going to stand up to a thug like Assad and say we're not going to let you gas your own people and commit war crimes, then who are we as a nation? I think we need to stand up and clearly say this is unacceptable."

McCain: Obama's reversal could have 'serious consequences'

McCain said he doesn't know how Congress will vote, nor does he know how he will vote until the White House presents a strategy to topple the Assad regime, rather than taking punitive steps.

Speaking to CBS' "Face the Nation" McCain said he and others "will be wanting a strategy, a plan, rather than just launching cruise missiles and that's it."

The 2008 GOP presidential nominee has been one of the leading voices in the Senate in favor of U.S. action in Syria. He said Obama has called him and Graham for a meeting at the White House Monday to talk about the situation.

"The best way is to eliminate the threat of Bashar Al-Assad's continued use of chemical weapons – and, by the way, we know he's used them numerous times before - would be the threat of his removal from power," McCain said.

READ: Statements by other lawmakers

He disagrees with the notion that seeking congressional approval at this stage sends a strong message, saying the president could have taken action on his own earlier if he wanted to.

"But at the eleventh hour, when the strikes–leaks have been massive and unprecedented–are already planned, we know what ships are there, we know how many missiles…then a reversal at this point, I think, has serious consequences," he said, speaking of the risk of a possible "no" vote from Congress.

Kerry defended the president's decision to seek authorization from Congress before taking military action, saying the move will make the United States "stronger in the end" should the country decide to move forward with a strike.

"It's amazing to me to see people suddenly standing up and taking such affront at the notion that Congress ought to weigh in," he said on CNN. "I mean, I can hear the complaints that would have taken place if the president proceeded unilaterally and people say, 'Well why didn't you take the time to consult?'"

Rogers: 'This isn't reality TV'

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes Congress "will rise to the occasion" and recognize the situation is a "national security issue."

"This isn't about Barack Obama versus the Congress. This isn't about Republicans against Democrats. This has a very important worldwide reach," the Michigan Republican said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Describing the evidence as "convincing," Rogers said "it is hard to walk away from the information that is on the table and not come to the conclusion that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons."

Some critics argue the president's decision to involve Congress shows a lack of leadership and that he's simply shifting the responsibility to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But Rogers said it's the constitutional role of Congress to provide for national defense.

"Why shouldn't Congress share in the responsibility? If you believe in the War Powers Act, which I do, if you believe in the constitution of the United States that firmly puts in the first article the responsibility for Congress to provide for the general defense, that means we're involved in this discussion–and we should be," he said.

Rogers said the U.S. needs to make it clear to North Korea and Iran that it won't accept the use or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"If you don't send that message, that has real world consequences. This isn't a reality TV show.

At the end of the day, something will actually happen. People will lose their lives. Nations will make a decision moving forward on chemical and biological weapons based on what we do here," he said.

Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island agreed the president "made the right decision" to consult Congress.

"He was very clear that he had not decided on final military action, and then I think he rightfully recognized that in the long run he, the country and the world would be stronger if Congress was supportive of his activities, because this is not just a short term effort, this is a longer term effort," Reed said on "Fox News Sunday."

Rep. King slams Obama's 'mixed signals'

But fellow Republican Rep. Peter King of New York said the president has been sending "mixed signals" over last 10 days, and his decision to seek input from Congress is a "clear failure of leadership."

"If you feel so strongly about it and if he doesn't want to take the action himself then he should call us back into session tomorrow," King said on "Fox News Sunday." If the vote were held today, King predicted House Republicans would vote "no" over taking military action, though he said he personally would vote "yes."

Congress returns from recess on September 9, but some are calling for lawmakers to come back earlier for a special session so a decision can be made sooner. Rep. Adam Schiff, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, urged House Speaker John Boehner to reconvene the House given "the gravity of the situation in Syria."

"Now that the President has called for a vote on a new authorization to use force, it is all the more essential that we be called back into session immediately," he said Saturday in a statement.

Some lawmakers have cited President Ronald Reagan and President Clinton as former commanders-in-chief who acted without asking for congressional approval, saying Obama certainly has the right to do so.

As a former senator, however, Obama was clear on how he felt about the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a law requires the president to seek consent from Congress before force is used or within 60 days of the start of hostilities.

Obama criticized President George W. Bush for not obtaining renewed authorization for the war in Iraq. And as a candidate for president, Obama reaffirmed his stance, telling the Boston Globe in a questionnaire that "it is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action."

But the president did not seek consent from lawmakers when the U.S. engaged militarily in Libya, nor when Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan. In both instances, members of Congress complained loudly, but the president defended his decision.

Other avenues encouraged

While Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky applauded the president's decision to have Congress weigh in on the Syria issue, he strongly disagreed with the idea of taking military action in the country, saying the situation is too complicated.

"I think the war may escalate out of control and then we have to ask ourselves, who is on America's side over there," Paul said. "If the rebels win will they be America's ally?"

Paul said the Obama administration should engage more effectively with China and Russia, two of Syria's closest allies.

"I think the best outcome for all the major powers would be a peaceful transition in government and Russia could influence that if they told Assad, 'No more weapons," Paul said.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas announced Saturday he also will not support military action.

"America cannot afford another conflict that taxes our resources without achieving goals that advance American interests," he said in a statement.

Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, meanwhile, said he doesn't think Congress will approve the president's request and pointed to a weakened U.S. military and potential escalation of violence as major reasons not to intervene in Syria.

"This could be a war in the Middle East," he said Sunday on Fox.

CNN's Tom Cohen, Greg Clary, Leigh Ann Caldwell, and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

Watch State of the Union with Candy Crowley Sundays at 9am ET. For the latest from State of the Union click here.

Filed under: Congress • John McCain • Mike Rogers • Rand Paul • Syria • TV-State of the Union
soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. G

    don,t push it assad ,the only place americans don,t hate each other is on the battle field

    September 1, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  2. Dixie

    This is a time when Congress has to come to a plan of action. I don't see this as a limited attack. There will be a retaliation and given that, we still need to stop the use of chenical weapons. If not we or our allies will be next. Even doing nothing has it,s draw backs, so we must act no matter how much we don,t think it,s a good idea.

    September 1, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  3. newportsandanger

    We absolutely MUST NOT allow ANYONE to use chemical weapons...we CANNOT send the message that we won't do anything if you use them...our allies will be hit HARD in very short order and we'll be brought into a literal world war 3.

    Chemical weapons would start world war 3...very quickly....if anyone thinks they can use them. We MUST stop this. We're the only ones that can....the UN will never say yes with Russia having an automatic veto...Putin LOVES Syria, because they're in it with Iran. Putin will NEVER say "you can bomb Syria because he used chemical weapons." Even if 100% proof were there...Putin would NEVER allow the UN to strike Syria.

    September 1, 2013 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  4. Dave Harris

    Any time they claim it's not partisan, you know for sure it's partisan. It's just part of the game.

    September 1, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  5. Liz the First

    Any repug who votes against this totally justified, measured response to a genuine atrocity will just prove the absolute hypocrisy of his party. their 'president' went to war because he wanted to and his justification was a web of lies! we now have proof positive of the massacre of syrian women and children by their own despotic leader. what kind of country would we be to let that stand, and continue???

    September 1, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  6. Phyllis Gwendoline Williams

    I asked my church brethren a while ago what must the President
    do for Syria? One said he is to be Big Brother and send them blessings in all that they need.

    God is a Restorer;
    He returns what was destroyed and
    replaces what was stolen.
    He removes the stain of sin,
    and brings beauty out of the ruins of our lives.

    God is a Renewer;
    He rekindles the flame
    which flickers in the heart grown cold.
    He takes away the old things
    and makes all things new.

    September 1, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  7. Thomas

    Your ether with us , or against us !

    The smoking gun could come back as a mushroom cloud ?

    Act first , don't ask questions later , kill responsibly !

    September 1, 2013 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  8. vidal808

    I am happy the President is placing the decision in to Congress's hands. This way he can not be blamed for doing anything. If he would have done it on his own, there would have been an outcry – he can't do anything right according to the Republicans. Now let's see....let them fight it out and if they want to go and fight another war, well, the Congress decides....well done Mr. President!

    September 1, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  9. Ngoc-V-Le/Le-Roy

    *Dear: Sir/ th United States OF America* We is on The top of International..Plan Syria War that is a Civil War.. NOT Look like War 2. We don't forget Viet-Nam War .58.000 U-S Military go pass a way and over 300.000 U-S Military injured. THE War From Syria Country Let Them Kill more Themselves and We Need investigating evidence..Who is Behind GOV'T Syria they used Chemical Weapons and Kill to many People in they Country U-S GOV'T need Protect OUR Military and Homeland Security first ...Sincerly.Ngoc-V-Le

    September 1, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  10. concern citizen

    Let us first fix 7.5% unemployment and then police the world. Bombing Syria is just to satisfy the egos of few of our politicians and waste of resources. We need to get engaged only if we are attacked. We spent over 6 B in Iraq and this money could have spent better to make our country better

    September 1, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  11. John

    I rarely agree with the president. However, congress, not the president has the constitutional right to declare war. This is the right thing to do. No single person should have the power to destroy the wealth and prosperity of this country by declaring or engaging in war. The congressmen who want to abdicate this responsibility to the president are cowards. It is their right and they should demand it.

    September 1, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  12. Ralph Potter

    I have a problem with this; I work on vacation all of the time – do I have more secure connectivity than congress (I know they get a copy of mine). Are we pretending that the fact that they (congress) are on vacation excludes action (con-calls, secure email, airplanes are all available to them) on major foreign policy decisions – this is a WTF moment that should show how fundamentally things are broken in DC. Please force these guys to get their act together and not wait for thousands more to die while they either watch football or play the party games that they are so good at.

    September 1, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  13. Ken

    I post this response in as many places as possible. We are being told that 1,400 people died from the chemical weapons in Syria. That is bad but small potato's compared to the 15,000 – 20,000 each year that dies from old landmines. (This does not include the thousands more maimed by the mines, just those that were killed.)

    We did not interfere with Syria for years until they started fighting among themselves. Neither side likes us so whichever side wins will eventually turn against us. This has happened repeatedly in the region and ultimately it always comes back to bite us in the rear. If world laws are being broken then let the world government and world police handle it!!!

    September 1, 2013 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  14. taxweary

    We are so poor we cant have W.H tours, but we can police the world and send million dollar rockets into a conflict where both sides hate us?Screw the "red line"

    September 1, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  15. morriekurt

    It is just what the repubs wanted the president to ask for approval now he has and now they are mad that he did. Repubs thougt that if he acted they step up their impeachment talk. They said that he should consult them first.

    September 1, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  16. Dumb Politics

    Perhaps if Congress wasn't on vacation more than 239 days a year, they would have figured out a plan to the red line in Syria several months ago, a plan for jobs, a plan for the budget crisis, a plan for immigration reform, a plan for education and a plan for solving the health care crisis. Yet, the only plan they have is how to get re-elected. It's time for a new plan from the people who elect these idiots to office, 6 years and you are out! If any business would allow their employees only 126 days of work annually, the business would never survive. Perhaps that is why we are going down the wrong direction and nothing is getting done in DC. If we have to wait for a plan because we have to wait for politicians to come back from a month long vacation, we are going to be waiting for a long time for anything from DC...

    September 1, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  17. taxweary

    Our country is so poor that we cant have W.H. tours,but we can police the world and send million dollar rockets into a conflict where both sides hate us!I Stay out of Syria..for so many different reasons!!

    September 1, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  18. Ted

    There is no question that Obama got cold feet and shifted responsibility to Congress. He should have already punished Assad's brutal brother effectively long ago and without any debate. Now it's too late anyway.

    September 1, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  19. Erin Infinger for Carol Sheridan

    All it takes for evil to prevail is that good men to nothing.

    September 1, 2013 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  20. Carol

    In the meantime what has happened to further the United States economy? Nobody is speaking of new jobs and getting out of our own problems. No more war.

    September 1, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  21. Maudie

    If it's not a majority, then don't do it. That should say something about a democracy. To do something like this will cost many American lives even though it may not be at the outset and create more terrorist attacks but this time financed by other governments and not by some extremist group. I'm sure that Russia and China would rather have a sure thing with Assad than have to deal with Al Qaida at their backdoor. There's got to be other ways to deal with the heinous use of Sarin on innocent civilians than to bomb the hell out of Syria. Where's Saudi and the rest of the oil rich countries? Why don't they do it? I'm already paying a ton of taxes every year to support the other wars, I don't want to pay for another one. Give me and the rest of the American people a break please. Remember the baby boomers are retiring very soon and there won't be as much money to waste on the war machine. So use some damn common sense for once.

    September 1, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  22. That Sandman Guy

    Any military action from us is going to help "the opposition" and cause severe ripples throughout the region and the world, and none of them are going to be very pretty for the "Homeland".
    Tell me ONE time where this type of action on our part has worked out well for us. There's a LOT of history here and I can't think of a single time.
    This is one of those incidents where we should throw up our hands, back away, and make it clear that at this point we will not act without full NATO support.
    If NATO wants to stand by and watch this continue.. so be it.. If China or Russia went outside of NATO to attack England we would go ballistic screaming about laws and "understandings". Yet we've done it how many times now?
    Public opinion says stay the hell out.
    Our most trusted ally has voted not to act.
    And what happened to innocent until proven guilty? We made it clear that the use of these weapons would get us involved and the Syrian government had everything to lose by utilizing them... and the opposition had everything to gain... just saying!
    And before 5 people blast me accusing me of saying the opposition gassed themselves, I'm simply saying that until there is solid evidence of guilt, we should not risk killing more innocent lives as punishment for suspected crimes.

    September 1, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  23. John Deatherage

    The power to start a military engagement lies solely with Congress (Article 1, section 8 of the Const.). Congress can't cede a Constitutional responsibility to a different branch of government The framers wisely divided the power to wage war from the power to initial war. How many non declared wars have we been involved in since 1945? Too many! It's high time we respect the Constitution and it's principles. The War Powers Resolution is an unConstitutional ceding of power from Congress to the President.

    September 1, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  24. Lvsam

    We really need to leave them to their own fate. People around the world have been complaining about us for a kong time. Lets fundamentally have a new world order without us trying to keep order. Let others deal with what Russia and China do.

    September 1, 2013 04:16 pm at 4:16 pm |
  25. Dan

    Normally, the Republicans are all for war, but in this case they are divided. If they support war, then they have to show support for Obama... whom they hate.

    September 1, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
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