August 31st, 2013
01:24 PM ET
6 years 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 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. Thomas

    Measure twice , cut once !

    September 1, 2013 01:45 am at 1:45 am |
  2. ThinkAgain

    The tea folks are hopping up and down – because now they have a BIG distraction from the FACT that they have done diddly to help our economy or our country. They just LOVE being able to irritate the President and pretend to be so important – when they are nothing more than a bunch of whiny children.

    September 1, 2013 02:15 am at 2:15 am |
  3. ThinkAgain

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

    Assad did this PRECISELY because the UN inspectors were scheduled to arrive. Assad knows that he's causing a problem for the U.S., hoping that he can get away with slaughtering his own people because we'll be too scared of the al Qaeda-backed rebels gaining power that we and the international community will do nothing.

    Pretty obvious, if you ask me ...

    September 1, 2013 02:17 am at 2:17 am |
  4. Winston Smith

    The occupants of seats in congress and senate positions, along with the president need to be the first boots on the ground. While many believe the action against the country of Syria, can be kept to a limited action, many leaders from police actions years ago thought the same thing. They too were wrong in their assumption, and the current crop of idiots are no brighter than those of the past. They just think they are.

    September 1, 2013 02:38 am at 2:38 am |
  5. @RI_Roger (Follow me on Twitter)

    If there was ever a time to call or email your Senators and House Representative to voice your opinion, now is it. I'll make my 3 phone calls and 3 emails before lunch today. I'd feel differently if this administration had integrity for being honest and forth-right with the American people. However all we get is political rhetoric, word spin and blame of others. When this President learns to lead, I'll consider supporting him again, until then it's a no vote for me.

    Congress must vote "the will of the people" not their normal partisan divide; let the President decide his next step.

    September 1, 2013 06:06 am at 6:06 am |
  6. Name jk. Sfl. GOP conservatives,the garbage of America.

    Bad news to get the incompetent GOP house of reps involved in anything,can't wait for 2014 midterms to kick out this useless GOP garbage!!!!

    September 1, 2013 07:15 am at 7:15 am |
  7. ED1

    As always Obama is playing his silly blame game if anything goes south and on the other hand he will not be able to take credit have someone to blame either way. if it goes great Congress will.

    Obama has someone to blame no matter what our no leader in charge as always..

    September 1, 2013 07:18 am at 7:18 am |
  8. GOP = Greed Over People

    This is only the second time the President has spoken on the subject of Syria. All other "reporting" has been from unnamed "sources". That used to be called speculation NOT news. There is no confusion on President Obama's stand on Syria.

    I like a President that does NOT "shoot from the hip" or "go with my gut", but takes a measured and analytical approach before becoming involved in an international altercation, so I am glad that the President is getting Congress get involved.

    However, I am against intervention in Syria, so I hope they vote 'No".

    September 1, 2013 08:55 am at 8:55 am |
  9. Rick McDaniel

    If Congress doesn't have brains enough to vote against taking any action, then they need to be replaced. Pure and simple.

    September 1, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  10. Dixie

    congress needs to put this mess back in Obama's lap. Once again he has put them in a no win situation. Stick him out and let him see just what a mess he made. "Better to let people think you're a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!"

    September 1, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  11. don in albuquerque

    No, Ed1. It's called check and mate. First time in five years congress is going to be forced to do some work. But you are correct with one assumption-Yep, screw this one up boys, and its all yours. Sad thing is screwing this one up could lead to war. Fo ahead GOTP give it your best shot, and hammer that last nail home.

    September 1, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  12. MaryM

    Initial symptoms following exposure to sarin are a runny nose, tightness in the chest and constriction of the pupils. Soon after, the victim has difficulty breathing and experiences nausea and drooling. As the victim continues to lose control of bodily functions, the victim vomits, defecates and urinates. This phase is followed by twitching and jerking. Ultimately, the victim becomes comatose and suffocates in a series of convulsive spasms.
    Imagine you or your love ones suffering those symptoms

    September 1, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  13. Bamabegone!

    congress needs to put this mess back in Obama's lap. Once again he has put them in a no win situation. Stick him out and let him see just what a mess he made. "Better to let people think you're a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!"
    Right on, Dixie - Obama is now trying to create ANOTHER situation where he can AGAIN skirt responsibility and perpetually blame someone else - THE "VOTE PRESENT" GUY STRIKES AGAIN.

    September 1, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  14. CesiumShoreline

    Use of Sarin, but by WHOM?

    September 1, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  15. Thomas

    Its nice to have a leader that uses his mind and heart . We dont need to be a reactionary nation .

    September 1, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  16. getu

    3000 Syrians died and US wants to go to war and hear in USA 45,000 Americans Die Each Year From Lack of Health Care.

    September 1, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  17. S. B. Stein

    I can see both sides of the argument. It isn't an immediate threat in an area that doesn't like us. The problem is that we need to be more consistent about WMD. We should have done something when Iraq did it decades ago.

    September 1, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  18. GI Joe

    Just as soon as they finish their 5 week vacation. Not one minute before.

    September 1, 2013 07:15 pm at 7:15 pm |
  19. Dale

    We fight and die for their freedom. They pleaded with us, "Please come and save us". Then they kill is in our sleep in Afganistan. They car bomb us in Iraq. They kill our Ambassador in Lybia. I say let them kill themselves. men, women, children. let them do it with bullets, bombs, gas, I don't care. You all need to remember that they only want all of us who are not muslums to die. Leave them alone to kill off themselves.

    September 1, 2013 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  20. Mike D Sollows

    hguoene ton war, war and yes war may never stop as long as greed, coruption and religion is used as a tool taht it was invented for control of those that that are taught and live to think and act as they are convinced, there sky is not the same as others , we all have the same blood and breathe the same air on the same planet and yet so many think they are different and must live a different way, when will the world wake up and realize that 3-5 % control what goes on and it is they that gain while the rest of us see child porn and slavery and do nothing, the drugs the kids today is cut with zietriline a horse tranquilizer and 3-6 months later there brain has melted and they either go mental and act crazy with violence or they will just over flow our mental institutions and burden the tax payer,s and many people will not just lose a child or loved one we sit back and allow our society to kidnap and buy little kids that will be locked up ,drugged up and raped over and over again, we all know what goe,s on and „

    September 1, 2013 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  21. Matt

    Iran are well adept at psy-ops that is why the bogged the US and UK down in Iraq and you can see the results, the Beirut bombings in 83 and the hostages, the William Buckley snuff video. And as you can see it works.

    September 1, 2013 10:24 pm at 10:24 pm |
  22. Evergreen

    Congress, the ball is in your court. Deliberate long and hard on this situation.

    September 1, 2013 10:57 pm at 10:57 pm |
  23. J.V.Hodgson

    I worked and lived in Tokyo during the Aum Shinrikyo attacks on the Tokyo subways with Sarin gas.
    Many survived, some died not many fortunately. Unless the potency In Syria has been militarized to an extent I know not of to be effective in open air environments..... I am not sure why Sarin is the Horror. I am not a chemist or doctor to know enough.
    In Tokyo I do authorities defined what it was within Hours not Weeks! so per the Un mandate define what not who did it like now.
    It's called mass spectrometry!!

    September 2, 2013 02:17 am at 2:17 am |
  24. William hill

    Our Middle East policy seems to be to wander into somebody's backyard, do a lot of damage and leave a mess behind. Hopefully, congress will decide we can only make things worse by intervening. If the Syrians want to change their country, let them do it.

    September 2, 2013 06:19 am at 6:19 am |
1 2