Congress Gets Assertive With the White House Over Syria

By Michael Catalini

August 28, 2013

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."

This article appears in the Aug. 28, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.

By Michael Catalini

August 28, 2013