US Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., addresses a meeting March 19 in Washington. Paul is among skeptics in Congress who are urging the commander in chief to seek lawmakers' approval before launching military strikes in Syria. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers who say President Barack Obama would violate the Constitution by launching military strikes in Syria without congressional approval received a boost Wednesday when a high-profile senator joined their cause.
Congressional skeptics in both political parties were joined about the same time by a somewhat surprising colleague: Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also weighed in with a forceful letter to Obama that contained 14 pointed questions he wants answered before a new Middle East war is launched.
Sen. Rand Paul, a leading contender in the still-developing race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, is urging the commander in chief to seek lawmakers’ approval before lobbing the first Tomahawk missile toward Syria.
“The United States should condemn the use of chemical weapons,” Paul said in a statement. “We should ascertain who used the weapons and we should have an open debate in Congress over whether the situation warrants U.S. involvement.”
To this end, Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told MSNBC on Wednesday that he is ready to return to Washington “tomorrow” for a debate and vote on a Syria mission.
Blumenthal said he believes the administration needs to refine its overall objective for a Syria strike, which he said is unclear.
For its part, the White House said it merely wants to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons in a lethal Aug. 21 attack. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday the administration’s war plan is not aimed at ousting or killing Assad.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that Assad has to be held accountable for using chemical weapons, which he said violates a decades-old international norm.
Despite the limited scope of the expected operation, Paul and other lawmakers remain concerned.
“The Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress, not the president,” the tea party-affiliated Paul said. “The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring in to power people friendly to the United States.”
This is not the first time Paul has publicly aligned himself against Obama’s national security and foreign policy actions and plans. In early March, Paul led a headline-grabbing Senate floor filibuster of Obama’s then-CIA director nominee, John Brennan, over the administration’s armed drone policy.
Paul joins conservative Republicans and war-skeptical Democrats in raising legal concerns.
Among those is libertarian-leaning GOP Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who is charging the War Powers Act requires any president to seek congressional approval before going to war.
Amash is using Twitter to make his case, including quoting past comments by Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.
“Obama ‘07: ‘Pres does not have power ... to unilaterally authorize military attack ... that does not involve stopping actual or imminent threat,’” Amash tweeted. Later, he offered this on the social media outlet: “Biden ‘07: ‘Founding Fathers vested in Congress, not Pres, power to initiate war, except to repel imminent attack on U.S. or its citizens.’”
Amash upped the ante on Wednesday, predicting a loss for Obama if he did as Blumenthal suggested and called Congress to Washington to vote on a Syria authorization measure.
“Why don’t Pres Obama & leaders in Washington want Congress to vote on attacking #Syria?” the lawmaker asked rhetorically. “Because the vote would fail.”
More than 80 lawmakers have signed a letter, including more than a dozen Democrats, opposing military strikes without congressional approval.
“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,” states the bipartisan letter.
Shortly after Paul released his statement, Inhofe’s office fired off his Syria opposition statement.
In it, the SASC’s top Republican raises concerns similar to Paul’s and said he has discussed the situation with administration officials.
“What we are seeing in Syria is abominable as thousands upon thousands of innocent children and families are being murdered while millions more are being driven from their homes,” Inhofe said. “Today, I told the administration that I cannot support military action in Syria unless the president presents to Congress his broader strategy in the region that addresses our national security interests and the budget to support it.”
The crux of Inhofe’s opposition, however, lies in concerns over the cost of striking Syria and the effect on a military he feels is too “stretched thin.”
“President Obama has decimated our military beginning with his first budget four and a half years ago,” he said. “[Obama] has underfunded overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, reduced base defense budget, and put into motion sequestration.
“Our military has no money left. Will the president pay for this operation with more furloughs and by grounding squadrons again?” Inhofe said. “No red line should have been drawn without the strategy and funding to support it.”
Boehner Demands Answers
Boehner, in his letter to the commander in chief, questioned whether the Obama administration has a clear and adequate Syria strategy.
“Having again determined your red line has been crossed, should a decisive response involve the use of the United States military, it is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure U.S. objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” Boehner told Obama.
“I have conferred with the chairmen of the national security committees who have received initial outreach from senior administration officials,” Boehner said. “While the outreach has been appreciated, it is apparent from the questions above that the outreach has, to date, not reached the level of substantive consultation.
“It will take presidential leadership and a clear explanation of our policy, our interests, and our objectives to gain public and Congressional support for any military action against Syria,” the speaker wrote.
Among the questions Boehner wants answered is one about the “standard” the administration used “to determine that this scope of chemical weapons use warrants potential military action?” Another asks if a military response would be “precedent-setting should further humanitarian atrocities occur?”
Some are simple — but underscore what some analysts say is a so-far murky end goal.
“What result is the Administration seeking from its response? What is the intended effect of the potential military strikes?” Boehner asked Obama. “If potential strikes do not have the intended effect, will further strikes be conducted? Would the sole purpose of a potential strike be to send a warning to the Assad regime about the use of chemical weapons? Or would a potential strike be intended to help shift the security momentum away from the regime and toward the opposition?”
Others are more detailed.
“Assuming the targets of potential military strikes are restricted to the Assad inner circle and military leadership, does the administration have contingency plans in case the strikes disrupt or throw into confusion the command and control of the regime’s weapons stocks?
“Does the administration have contingency plans if the momentum does shift away from the regime but toward terrorist organizations fighting to gain and maintain control of territory?” Boehner asked. “Does the Administration have contingency plans to deter or respond should Assad retaliate against U.S. interests or allies in the region?
And one questions just how the White House intends to pay for what could be a new war bill of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Does the administration intend to submit a supplemental appropriations request to Congress, should the scope and duration of the potential military strikes exceed the initial planning?”