US President Barack Obama meets with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other members of Congress on July 31. Legislators from both parties have said in recent days that the president needs Congressional authorization for any strikes inside Syria. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — Pressure from the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue is mounting on President Barack Obama to seek congressional approval before launching military strikes inside Syria.
White House and Pentagon officials reportedly are mulling how and what the US military could hit in Syria to weaken the Islamic State, a violent extremist group that has seized much of northern Iraq and slaughtered minorities.
The debate around striking on Syrian soil comes almost exactly one year after lawmakers returned early from an August recess to craft a use-of-force resolution aimed at helping rebel forces there in a years-long fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
That late-summer 2014 debate became a brouhaha over whether Obama should even green-light strikes.
A year later, however, and the debate is mostly about whether Obama should first get Congress to sign off on any plans to hit Islamic State targets in Syria — not whether he should order air strikes.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., issued a statement Wednesday saying he wants the White House to spell out “a comprehensive strategy combining diplomatic, political, and military efforts, and the contributions from a broad coalition of countries.”
“Such a strategy will require time, commitment, and leadership that America is uniquely suited to provide,” McKeon said.
But the HASC chairman echoed a growing number of lawmakers, including some of Obama’s fellow Democrats, added “this comprehensive approach may well require additional authorities from Congress.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told CNN on Tuesday that Obama, under the Constitution, possesses the ability to strike Islamic State targets anywhere if there is an imminent threat.
But “if it's a situation where he feels that this requires a long-term, intense operation, then again, that's another issue,” said Reed, expected to take over as SASC chairman in January if his party retains control of the chamber. “And at that point, congressional debate and congressional support, I think, would be very useful and very critical.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Wednesday afternoon added his name to the chorus calling for a force-approval debate and vote.
"I do not believe any of the existing war authorizations give constitutional permission to the Administration to fight a new long term war against [Islamic State]," the Foreign Relations Committee members said in a statement. "Thus, if the president anticipates military involvement beyond our original limited objectives in Iraq or Syria, the administration needs to come to Congress to outline its military objectives and seek specific authorization before we enter into a new war in the Middle East."
To that end, Obama and his top aides have said combating the group likely will take months — or longer — not weeks.
Last year, Obama shocked Washington with a dramatic Rose Garden announcement that he would hold off on striking Assad’s military until Congress had voted. Even some Democrats want him to repeat that this year.
“My argument is the president did it right last year, and by doing it right, he got the objective that he defined to Congress which was taking the chemical weapons stockpile out of the equation,” said Tim Kaine, D-Va., a SASC and Foreign Relations Committee member.
“And so, he needs to come to Congress again with respect to the threat that [Islamic State] poses and he needs to explain it and crisply define what a military mission would be, and then as you indicate, let Congress debate it and vote it up or down,” Kaine said Tuesday evening on MSNBC. “That`s what the framers of the Constitution intended. It`s the right thing to do legally.”
Another key Senate Foreign Relations Committee member wants Congress to weigh in before the first US bomb explodes in Syria.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the panel’s ranking member, says Congress should use the situation to give the post-9/11 authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) resolution its first update.
“We should, certainly, authorize this,” Corker said Tuesday morning on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” political program. “Congress should own … military action.”
Some national security law scholars say the Obama administration simply could use the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) passed after 9/11 to justify the attacks.
“I hope that is not what they will do,” Corker said, joining the ranks in Congress pushing for the first revision to the 2001-passed measure. “I hope what they will instead do is come to Congress and ask for a new authorization for a new threat that has evolved over time.
“What Congress wants to do, in fact, is broaden his authority, and narrow it at the same time,” Corker said, acknowledging, “I know that sound strange.”
To that end, there is talk on Capitol Hill and in academia about giving presidents stronger legal authority to hit targets in places like Yemen, Syria and the Horn of Africa — while also including some geographic and time limits.
Lawmakers for years have talked about a need to revise or repeal-and-replace the post-9/11 AUMF with a version that provides a better legal justification for targeting violent extremist groups that have sprang up since 9/11 in places beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Experts and some lawmakers — from both parties — have said the measure is outdated and needs to reflect a changed fight against al-Qaida and similar forces in places beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But McKeon wants lawmakers to avoid putting the legislative cart before the horse.
“Speculation about [the need for a vote] before the president has even offered a strategy is putting the cart before the horse,” McKeon said. “We need the president to explain to the American people what is at stake, what our objectives are, and the strategy for how to achieve them. Only after we understand all this can we contemplate what new authorities might be needed.”
Despite the bipartisan calls, Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, wonders if lawmakers can agree on the substance of a Syria force measure.
“AUMFs are generally passed in the white-hot days in run-up to a major military engagement, and it usually takes either a dramatic international event … or a heavy presidential lift,” Fontaine told CongressWatch.
“I don’t know that you could actually get agreement on what they would be authorizing: Would we be attacking targets that are ISIS targets anywhere? In Iraq? In Iraq and Syria?” he said. “From the administration's standpoint, it’s really hard to see why they want to run the risk of a new AUMF that limits the president’s options or gets killed.”