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Obama Lost Much of Congress on Syria… In 2011

Obama Lost Much of Congress on Syria… In 2011

The White House’s push to win Congressional support for a military strike on Syria is running into an unexpected roadblock: lingering anger over the administration’s decision to bypass Capitol Hill when it decided to intervene in Libya two years ago.

Senior administration officials briefed the leadership of the House and Senate Thursday night on intercepted phone calls between senior Syrian military officials and other intelligence purporting to show that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of civilians. President Obama personally called House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to walk them through the report.

For a growing number of lawmakers, however, that outreach isn’t enough. With the prospect of an imminent U.S. military intervention into Syria looming, 140 members of Congress, including 21 Democrats, signed onto a letter demanding that the White House seek formal Congressional approval before using force there. Failing to do so, they say, would be unconstitutional.  

"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," the lawmakers write.

Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Rigell, whose office drafted the letter, said that he was motivated by act by continued unease over the White House’s failure to seek such authorization before using American air power to help oust Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.

At the time, the White House argued that it didn’t need Congressional approval because the level of U.S. involvement in Libya didn’t constitute full-blown "hostilities," the threshold that has to be reached to trigger the 1973 War Powers Resolution.

Rigell, in the interview, said that he worried the White House would make a similar argument to avoid seeking Congressional authorization in Syria.

"The best indicator of future performance is past performance," he said. "The president, without Congressional support, spent over $1 billion in Libya and used 221 Tomahawk missiles and 42 Predator missiles.  If that doesn’t rise to the level of ‘hostilities,’ then what would?  What amount of violence must we inflict somewhere for that to be triggered?"

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that Obama was still weighing whether to use force in Syria but that any strikes there would be "very discrete and limited."  Earnest said that the administration would produce a legal justification of its own if Obama chose to use force.  A White House spokeswoman declined to say whether the administration would also seek a formal authorization of military force from Congress.

Republican Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a former Army officer who signed the Rigell letter, said Libya set a dangerous precedent that a president could act unilaterally even in cases where core U.S. interests weren’t under direct threat.  Rooney said that Obama sought NATO approval before acting in Libya but didn’t request Congressional authorization, a move he termed a "backward slap in our face."

"If we remain quiet on the War Powers Resolution, we’re basically ceding all decision making about when to use military force to the executive branch," he said in an interview.  "That puts on a very slippery slope."

The letter signed by Rooney and Rigell, as well as a similar one from 54 Democrats demanding that Obama "seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement" in Syria, highlights the increasing politicization of the Syria crisis on both sides of the Atlantic.  British Prime Minister David Cameron, a close U.S. ally and Syria hawk, suffered an embarrassing defeat Thursday when lawmakers there defeated a motion to authorize a military intervention into Syria if United Nations inspectors confirmed that Assad had used chemical weapons.  After the vote, Cameron said it was clear that parliament opposed such a strike and that his "government will act accordingly." 

Cameron’s defense secretary, Philip Hammond, later told the BBC that British troops wouldn’t be involved in any military actions inside Syria, effectively guaranteeing that the U.S. would have to largely act alone if Obama decided to hit Assad.

The war debate has been intensifying here at home as well.