Topics: Barack Obama

Congressional authorization far from certain for military strike against Syria

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Congressional lawmakers announced Saturday they will vote on a resolution to grant President Obama the authority to take military action against Syria when they return the week of Sept. 9, but few gave any clear indication as to whether they would support a strike or move to block it.

Just a handful of lawmakers — including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez, D-N.J. — said Saturday that they will vote to give the president the authority to use military force against Syrian President Bashar Assad in retaliation for his regime's use of chemical weapons on its own citizens. 

“The Syrian regime and others like it must understand that red lines are indelible, that our foes should never question the resolve of the United States,” Menendez said after President Obama's Rose Garden announcement that he will seek congressional authority before acting in Syria. “We say what we mean, we mean what we say, and we don’t look away when undeniable war crimes are committed.”

Most other lawmakers, however, said only that they welcomed a chance to debate the reponse and some Republicans heaped criticism on Obama for the sudden decision to postpone a military response after it appeared Friday that he was ready to strike without congressional authorization.

“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,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Saturday. “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.”

Other lawmakers demanded the Congress return to work immediately, rather than wait until Sept. 9.

“The debate over Syria is too important to be delayed or compressed by other issues,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said. “We owe it to the American people to fulfill our responsibilities under the Constitution, and to do so in a timely way that respects the democratic process.”

It remains far from certain, meanwhile, as to whether Congress will authorize military force, despite impassioned arguments from White House officials and Secretary of State John Kerry that Assad employed deadly nerve gas to kill more than 1,400 Syrian citizens, including hundreds of children, on Aug. 21 in a strike that targeted 12 neighborhoods outside Damascus.

The House is comprised of 233 Republican and 200 Democrats, with 218 votes needed to pass most measures.

Dozens of Republicans are likely to oppose the cost and potential consequences of a military strike, and Obama is not likely to find much support among the predominantly liberal, anti-war Democrats, many of whom were elected in part because the opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Democrats are wary of abandoning Obama, however, and top lawmakers in both parties appear convinced chemical weapons were employed in Syria and that further use should be stopped.

With Congress now boxed in politically alongside Obama on Syria, lawmakers on Saturday were eager to show they could be swayed either for or against authorizing a military strike, and some said they wouldn’t decide without consulting with constituents.

“The use of chemical weapons is a heinous and despicable act that appears to be the work of a brutal dictator who has quashed dissent and killed innocent men, women and children,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said. “We must be mindful, however, of the complexities of the situation in Syria. The aftermath of a U.S. strike on targets in Syria is difficult to predict, with negative consequences that may be beyond our capability to control."

Other Democrats made it clear they are willing to abandon Obama and vote “no.”

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., was asked on MSNBC whether he’d vote against Obama and said, “I might, absolutely. We’ll have to see what the plan is and we’ll have to see how the discussion goes.”

Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., one of Obama’s staunchest allies, would commit to supporting the use of force.

“I look forward to the debate,” Pelosi said in a statement that affirmed the administration’s claim that the Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill people.

“President Obama is right that the debate and authorization by Congress for action will make our country and the response in Syria stronger,” Pelosi said.

White House officials on Sunday will give House lawmakers a classified briefing on Syria to try to further bolster their case for a strike.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he expects the Syria debate to begin as soon as Congress returnsw.

No GOP leaders committed Saturday to backing a military strike. Last week, the leadership demanded that Obama consult with Congress but didn't join some in their rank and file who insisted that Obama not act without congressional authorization.

The decision now lies with Congress.

“Under the Constitution, the responsibility to declare war lies with Congress,” Boehner said in a joint statement with other House GOP leaders. “We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised. In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”

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