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Many U.S. Lawmakers Want A Say On Taking Action In Syria

Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., has gotten dozens of House members to sign on to a letter demanding that President Obama ask for the official blessing of Congress before attacking Syria.
Steve Helber
Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., has gotten dozens of House members to sign on to a letter demanding that President Obama ask for the official blessing of Congress before attacking Syria.

The Obama administration appears poised to attack Syria after concluding Bashar Assad's government used chemical weapons, but many members of Congress say they haven't been briefed enough about why military action is warranted.

Opinions about Syria are all over the map, with many lawmakers saying the president cannot proceed without first getting authorization from Congress.

What's been irritating to a lot of lawmakers is that Obama doesn't seem to be asking for their permission at all. But whether the president is legally required to seek congressional approval before — for instance — launching cruise missiles into Syria is an issue that leaves even legal scholars furrowing their brows.

"The Constitution doesn't give me any quick answer to this," says Jesse Choper, who teaches constitutional law at the University of California, Berkeley. "It does say that Congress shall have the power to declare war. Well, the president would say, 'I am not declaring war. I am simply implementing foreign policy.' "

A 1973 statute, the War Powers Resolution, forbids armed forces to fight more than 60 days without congressional approval. But does that mean the president can unilaterally start military action basically anytime he wants?

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas recently argued on Fox News that "the only justifiable reason" for engaging the military is "to protect our national security."

If you want a Supreme Court case clarifying the president's powers as commander in chief, legal experts say: Good luck. The cases that really deal with that question date to the mid-19th century. So lawmakers have been spending this week offering their own constitutional interpretations.

"Look, I say this respectfully, but it is not the king's army," says Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia.

Rigell has gotten dozens of House members to sign on to a letter demanding that the president ask for the official blessing of Congress before attacking Syria. Some House and Senate members have been briefed by the president, but Rigell says more should be included — even if it means reconvening Congress during its summer recess.

"He has both the time and the obligation to come before Congress," Rigell says, "and if he truly believes that the use of force is both warranted and imminent, present that information to us, allow us a reasonable but short period to deliberate it. And in my view, that could be even a period of hours."

But whether Congress could come to a cohesive position on the proper response to Syria seems doubtful, if you've been watching any TV this week. Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, who is on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN the image of the White House is at stake.

"There's more of a concern here that we lose our credibility if we don't act, in view of how strongly President Obama has warned Syria in the past not to use chemical weapons," King said.

But Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona told Fox News that what the U.S. should really be focused on is changing the actual balance of power in the civil war — something the administration has said it's not interested in doing right now.

"If we do it right, and reverse the momentum here, I think that it could really have an effect in the eventual overthrow of a person who is clearly now a war criminal," McCain said.

Even lawmakers who believe it's enough to just focus on removing the chemical weapons say missile strikes won't solve the problem.

"To do the job right," says Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, who's also on the House Intelligence Committee, "we would have to have American troops, or coalition forces, on the ground in order to secure the chemical weapons."

But at the moment, the White House seems reluctant to commit any boots on the ground. The military response, most likely missile strikes, may last only a few days at most — possibly ending before Congress even gets back from its summer break.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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