Obama seeks Congress’ OK for strike on Syria
By Lynn Sweet Washington Bureau Chief August 31, 2013 10:00PM
President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the ongoing situation in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 in Washington. Obama says he has decided that the United States should take military action against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack. But he says he will seek congressional authorization for the use of force. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Updated: October 2, 2013 6:55AM
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama gave members of Congress what they wanted on Saturday — a showdown vote authorizing military force to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against its civilians.
Obama, in subjecting himself to a vote he said he had the legal right to avoid, faces a high-risk uphill battle to win authorization, with lukewarm support for Syrian military action from lawmakers in both parties.
Obama had little choice but to consult with Congress if he wanted any of his domestic agenda to even stand a chance in the GOP-controlled House.
If Obama went ahead on his own, it would have given Republicans who have obstructed him for years another reason to have nothing to do with seeking common ground on other issues.
As Obama seeks a vote, he has a lot of persuasion work to do with his own Democrats — especially the vocal activist grass-roots progressive groups and Democratic members in marginal districts who face more risk in 2014 in voting yes than no.
There will be House and Senate votes sometime after Sept. 9, when Congress returns from its long summer recess.
Lawmakers will not be called back early. Obama said Saturday he won’t order an attack until a vote because the U.S. can strike “whenever we choose . . . our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive.”
A congressional defeat will be an embarrassment, just as it was for British Prime Minister David Cameron when Parliament voted against British military action in Syria last week.
Even if an authorization vote fails in Congress, it will politically make it possible for Obama to pursue his legacy legislation. Pushing immigration reform through the House is at the top of the list.
Obama will probably win authorization from the Democratic-controlled Senate. On Saturday night Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement that limited military force against Syria is “justified and necessary.”
The GOP-run House will be more difficult — as it always is for Obama — on Syria because the bloc of dovish Democrats may join with hard-line anti-Obama Republicans. However, if House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) allows an up-or-down vote — without first insisting on first having the support of the majority of House Republicans — Obama stands a chance.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is among the few members who clearly sided with Obama after his Rose Garden announcement.
Obama made the right decision to “seek congressional approval for any military action in Syria,” Kirk said in a statement.
“While I would oppose any resolution that authorizes boots on the ground in Syria, I would support a narrow authorization of a missile strike targeting those responsible for using chemical weapons and deterring future use of such weapons,” Kirk said.
Now the rest of the members of Congress will have to get off the fence and take what will be, for many, a difficult vote.
Lawmakers, with access to classified briefings, will have to decide if Obama is striking the right balance: Over the narrow level of the U.S. military response, over the soundness of the evidence the U.S. has developed that the Assad regime is responsible for the horror, and over the implications of involving the U.S. in a complicated Syrian civil war — where the rebels may not be our friends or the friends of our allies.
Obama stipulated on Saturday that the U.S. would not send in ground troops and any military strike would be “limited in duration and scope.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was leaving his options open.
Durbin, the assistant majority leader and the chairman of the subcommittee handling Defense Appropriations, said in a statement, “If we can do something to discourage Assad and others like him from using chemical weapons without engaging in a war and without making a long-term military commitment of the United States, I’m open to that debate.”
Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) is leaning in no particular direction.
“Before I would approve the use of force I need to understand not only the proof of chemical weapons use, but also what military actions the president is planning and what the risks and benefits of these actions are in the short term and the long term,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.), a freshman, is a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee and often views issues through the lenses of what it means for the security of Israel. The Israeli public is in favor of a U.S.-led military action, according to a recent poll. Schneider just returned from a visit to Israel between Aug. 4 through Aug. 10, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation.
“I firmly believe Congress must thoroughly review evidence to discern the facts, and in that context assess the goals and options presented by the administration,” he said in a statement.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) on Saturday ran through the list of questions she and other lawmakers will be asking in the days ahead.
Said Schakowsky, “I want specifics: How will this action make future use of chemical weapons and the targeting of civilians less likely? How will it prevent chemical weapon stocks from getting into the hands of extremists? What does “limited” mean? What is the plan after the attack is over? Who supports us — Syria’s neighbors Turkey and Israel? Does the U.S. have a peaceful diplomatic strategy to prevent regional conflict and move to a negotiated solution?”