Demonstrators march in front of the White House in protest Aug. 29 during a rally against a possible US and allied attack on Syria in response to possible use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. (Saul Loeb / AFP)
WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama is facing pressure from both US political parties to allow Congress to debate and vote on a military mission in Syria.
The White House held a 90-minute Thursday evening conference call with more than a dozen lawmakers about chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime, and its war plans. Following that lengthy session, even some congressional supporters of US military action flipped, saying Congress should have a chance to vote on the operation.
One was Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker earlier in the week endorsed cruise missile strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly using chemical weapons on Aug. 21.
Corker had not called on Obama to hold off on attacking until both chambers of Congress have had a chance to debate and vote on a Syria operation. That changed late Thursday night.
“I would support surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare,” Corker said in a statement.
“While the administration has engaged in congressional consultation, they should continue to be forthcoming with information and would be far better off if they seek authorization based upon our national interests,” Corker said, “which would provide the kind of public debate and legitimacy that can only come from Congress.”
There were signs early in the teleconference with lawmakers that the White House had miscalculated the political pushback it would encounter.
Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran and vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), issued a statement shortly after the call began urging a congressional debate.
“Right now, we do not have enough facts about all facets of what is occurring on the ground, the factions involved in this civil war, and what the unintended consequences would be for U.S. military involvement, Gabbard said in a Thursday evening statement.
“Congressional debate and approval must occur before any U.S. military action is taken,” she said, “and through this process we need to have a clear-eyed view of our objectives and what the outcomes would be, understanding the impacts in Syria, and those that extend far beyond Syria.”
The political pushback from Obama’s own party picked up noticeably Thursday evening, with Democrats using email and social media to demand a vote. The catch: Congress is not slated to return from a summer recess until Sept. 9. That would delay any strikes longer than sources say the White House wants, and it’s unlikey that both chambers will come back early.
“Before we rush to war in #Syria, we need a real debate & we need a vote,” said loyal Democrat John Garamendi of California.
He and GOP Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina — both House Armed Services Committee members — wrote Obama on Thursday, urging him to delay an attack until Congress can vote.
“We strongly urge you to consult with Congress and to obtain congressional authorization before ordering the use of military force in Syria,” the lawmakers told the president.
“As stated in the War Powers Resolution of 1973, absent a congressional declaration of war or authorization for the use of military force, the president as commander in chief has constitutional power to engage the US armed forces in hostilities only in the case of a national emergency created by an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces,” Garamendi and Jones wrote.
But, the duo said, even with Thursday’s conference call, “none of these criteria have been met.”
Garamendi and Jones are concerned about a Syria strike because “respected leaders and strategists in our armed services, as well as experts on Syria and the region, have raised serious questions regarding the ultimate effectiveness and long-term impact of a US military intervention in the Syrian conflict.”
Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee member Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who supports limited strikes, this week said he would come back to Washington “tomorrow” to debate and vote on a Syria authorization measure.
Democratic Rep. Adam Shiff of California, a House Intelligence Committee member, broke with the White House this week, saying he “would like the Congress to be called back into session.
“I think we should be discussing and deliberating this and consulting with the president, even if it doesn’t come to a vote,” Shiff said.
Republicans walked away from the White House call unimpressed — and clearly sensing a chance to hit Obama politically.
“Tonight the administration informed us that they have a ‘broad range of options’ for Syria but failed to lay out a single option,” Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., said Friday morning.
“They also did not provide a timeline, a strategy for Syria and the Middle East, or a plan for the funds to execute such an option,” Inhofe said. “Several members agreed with me that whatever is decided upon, it’s going to take military resources that are at decreased readiness levels due to a lack of funding.”
What’s more, Inhofe claimed the White House did not provide details on how it would pay for the Syria mission. To this end, however, Gordon Adams, who ran national defense budgeting for the Clinton White House, told Defense News on Friday that the Pentagon should be able to cover the cost of any limited strikes with existing operations and maintenance funds, as well as overseas contingencies monies.
And House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., repeated his concerns that Obama last August set a red line for Assad using chemical weapons without thinking through just how he would enforce such a delcaration.
Analysts are responding to the fallout from the call by predicting votes in both the GOP-controlled House and even the Democratic-controlled Senate would be close.
Obama has the power as commander in chief under the War Powers Act to merely consult key lawmakers before green-lighting a military strike. But with more Americans opposed to a Syria operation than in favor, and even Democratic lawmakers demanding they get to vote, Obama would be taking a major political risk — though he will never again seek elected office.
David Gergen, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents, tweeted late Thursday that Obama “will now have hard time acting without some added support — like approval by Congress.”
“Likely to see round of second- guessing now of new natl security team appt by the President,” Gergen said in another tweet. “They must be scrambling to find Plan B.”
But Shawn Brimley, who worked for Obama’s National Security Council from February 2009 until October 2012, said Friday he believes “the president is going to act if he feels has to.”
“I was there in the White House in 2011 for Libya, and I’m not sure congressional machinations play into the president’s calculations,” said Brimley, now with the Center for a New American Security.
“Congressional forces are going to move back and forth,” Brimley said. “The UK parliament vote to not participate probably caused some [lawmakers] to re-think things. But I think the White House will consult with Congress, and do all they can to bring people along. At end of day, don’t think it factors into the president’s decision-making too much.”
Lawmakers and analysts agree, however, that any president has the power — backed by decades of precedent — to launch military operations on his own.
“Certainly, the president has the power to go in and come later and talk to the Congress about it. That’s a given,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a House Armed Services Committee member who opposes any Syria strikes.
“I think having Congress, at least having come and talked to them and hear their advice is incredibly important,” Sanchez said. “Ultimately, it’s [Obama’s] decision. He is the commander in chief, and he will do … what he feels he needs to do.”