WASHINGTON – A group of lawmakers is urging President Obama to seek congressional authorization for any military action against Syria, warning that failure to do so would be unconstitutional.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who represents a district with a strong military and veterans presence, is circulating a letter to colleagues saying the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 require a vote in Congress before proceeding with a strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
“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,” the letter says. “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.”
[Updated, 2:10 p.m. Aug. 27: Rigell’s letter has 33 co-sponsors in the House, including 6 Democrats. He is seeking additional co-signers before sending the letter to the White House on Wednesday.]
Thus far, the debate on Syria among members of Congress is as much about whether the White House needs their approval as it is about the merits of any action. Administration outreach to lawmakers has increased since the weekend. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday, “We’re consulting directly with the leadership of the relevant committees as well as with other members of Congress who have a keen interest in this matter.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Monday that Boehner, in a conversation with the administration, “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." He did not indicate that Congress expected to authorize the action.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has had multiple briefings with the administration this week. He said in a televised interview that he believed the White House had already satisfied its obligations to consult with Congress. Still, he said he hoped the administration would seek formal authorization.
“I think if you look at the debate in Washington, and candidly, the feckless nature of Congress over time relative to foreign policy, some of the irresponsible comments that end up being made by folks who end up having no ownership over what we're doing in this regard, I actually wish they would call us back and ask for an authorization in advance,” he said. “I think it's the responsible thing to do.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who rallied a coalition of Democrats and Republicans in support of an amendment to limit NSA surveillance activities, is also demanding a vote in Congress. In postings to his Twitter account, Amash cited Obama’s own statement as a candidate for the presidency in 2007, in response to a question about a possible strike against Iran, that the president could not unilaterally authorize military action “that does not involve stopping actual or imminent threat."
Presented with that quote, Carney countered that “allowing the use of chemical weapons on a significant scale to take place without a response would present a significant challenge to or threat to the United States' national security interests.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that he was briefed this morning by the administration, which he said was “proceeding cautiously.” “The president is considering a broad range of options that have been presented by our military leaders,” he said.
A spokesman for House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) said he was briefed by senior Pentagon officials Monday night. McKeon has criticized Obama’s approach to Syria, saying Monday that "drawing red lines before you know what you are willing to do to back them up is folly.”
“But now that American credibility is on the line, the president cannot fail to act decisively," he said.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the kinds of airstrikes reportedly under consideration would be “little more than a slap on the wrist” to the Syrian government. He also warned that they could provoke a response from Assad and his allies, potentially drawing the U.S. into “a much wider and much longer-term conflict that could mean an even greater loss of life within Syria.”
“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,” he said.