A growing minority of lawmakers in both parties are demanding that President Barack Obama seek approval from Congress before launching an attack against Syria.
Most senior leaders in Congress appear content with the administration’s efforts to keep lawmakers abreast of what appears to be a fast-approaching military response to Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against opponents in that country’s protracted civil war.
But ahead of any possible military action, a chorus of voices is calling for at least a Congressional debate, if not an explicit vote authorizing the use of force.
“We should ascertain who used the weapons and we should have an open debate in Congress over whether the situation warrants U.S. involvement. The Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress, not the president,” said Sen. Rand Paul, the libertarian-minded Republican from Kentucky.
And Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who represents a district that Obama carried in 2012 election and that has the largest concentration of military personnel of any district in the nation with the Navy base at Norfolk, has circulated a letter demanding that the president call lawmakers back to Washington to vote on a resolution regarding Syria. And it’s won bipartisan support.
"We stand ready to come back into session, consider the facts before us, and share the burden of decisions made regarding U.S. involvement in the quickly escalating Syrian conflict,” reads Rigell’s letter, which won 92 signatures – 76 Republican, 16 Democratic – as of early Wednesday afternoon.
The call for a congressional vote on use of force – as was done in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq – comes at a time when Congress is out of session and isn’t scheduled to be back until Monday, Sept. 9. Meanwhile British Prime Minister David Cameron announced an emergency session of the House of Commons Thursday at which members will get to debate and vote on a motion on attacking Syria.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Wednesday wrote Obama to demand a full explanation and legal justification for the possible attacks.
"I respectfully request that you, as our country’s commander-in-chief, personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy," he said. "In addition, it is essential you address on what basis any use of force would be legally justified and how the justification comports with the exclusive authority of Congressional authorization under Article I of the Constitution."
But Congress hasn’t always voted to approve every military operation authorized by a president. Obama ordered the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 without explicit approval from Congress (though this was to the chagrin of his political foes).
That said, congressional leaders so far have appeared content to hold Obama to the lesser standard of “consultation” – that is, keeping House and Senate leaders and key committee members from both chambers abreast of the developments in Syria.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a vocal critic of President George W. Bush’s wartime actions, stopped short of demanding a vote on Syrian operations. She said House members “stand ready to consult with President Obama to consider the appropriate course of action in response to these acts of brutality.”
And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the hawkish Navy veteran who has long encouraged Obama to become involved in Syria, admitted that the law surrounding whether Obama needed a vote from Congress was “murky.”
“I do think that the president needs to have more consultation, which so far has not been there,” he said Wednesday on Fox News. “But the War Powers Act is a little murky about that.”
The political support for any strike against Syria could hinge more, then, on whether lawmakers feel as though they’ve been kept abreast of developments there.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said on KFYO radio that while he generally supported military action against Assad’s regime, he felt as though Obama had so far failed to make his case.
“The problem is, the president has not made the case for American intervention in Congress, either to the Congress or the American people,” the Texas senator said.