Will Syria Strike Get Congressional Approval?

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CBS News

In his 24 years on Capitol Hill, Joe Lieberman "never saw anything like" President Obama's surprise announcement Saturday that he will seek congressional authorization for a limited strike in civil war-torn Syria, the former independent Connecticut senator said over the weekend on "Fox News Sunday."

"We had President Clinton acting in Bosnia and Kosovo without endorsement by Congress," Lieberman said. "In the 1991 Gulf War, President Bush 41 was massing troops, ultimately over a half a million Americans. There was a debate about whether he should come to Congress for authorization - he did; it was very close. Passed in the Senate by only 52 to 47. But nothing like this.

"...The administration says consistently that he doesn't have to come to Congress to take military action," he went on. "Secretary [of State John] Kerry on Friday in a brilliant, convincing, moving statement essentially indicts [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad as a mass murderer. And then the president says yesterday, let's wait. There is a mass murderer at loose. And right now, while we are waiting, he's dispersing his critical assets."

Mr. Obama's decision to take his case for direct involvement in Syria's two-year-old conflict to Congress marked an abrupt turnaround for the White House, which had appeared on the cusp of ordering U.S. forces to launch a missile attack against Syria, in light of evidence that Assad's regime used chemical weapons against his own people.

And irony notwithstanding - the president as well as his then-fellow senators, Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, all at one point opposed the Iraq War - it also stood out as being historically uncommon for a limited strike: Authorization requests are typically reserved for boots on the ground.

It's true that the president's move was an unlikely course of action, agreed Norm Ornstein, congressional scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. "If you look at past experiences involving military action," he said, "pretty much any time except the first Gulf War, presidents have generally gone ahead and just done it and then waited to see what the consequences were." \

Ornstein reasoned the president's possible rationale: "He probably thought, after two wars, that it makes sense to bring Congress in. He's always believed Congress plays a role in these types of decisions. It also gives Congress a buy-in -- cuts down on what will be an enormous amount of carping. Those who criticize him no matter what he does, it puts them on the line to make a decision in the face of very powerful evidence that Assad has engaged in unspeakably evil act."

Making the Sunday show rounds, lawmakers were torn about whether Congress would OK the president's resolution requesting authorization for military force.

When Mr. Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would mark a "red line" that Assad wouldn't be allowed to cross with impunity, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on "Face the Nation," "he didn't say, 'It's a red line - and by the way I'm going to have to seek the approval of Congress.' He said it was a red line, and that the United States of America would act. And that's a big difference, and that's one of the reasons why this is so problematic."

One of the loudest critics of the administration's handling of Syria, McCain said Mr. Obama should have taken action early on, and called Assad "euphoric" about the president's announcement Saturday. With "unprecedented leaking" about what ships and missiles the United States have positioned in the region, he argued, "a reversal at this point, I think, has serious consequences as far as the steadfastness and purpose of this administration."

McCain said for him to get behind the president's resolution, "we have to have a plan, it has to be a strategy; it can't just be, in my view, pinprick cruise missiles." Still, he warned, "the consequences of the Congress of the United States overriding a decision of the president of the United States of this magnitude are really very, very dangerous."

Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., appearing later on the program said they back the president's decision to bring the issue to Congress.

"I was supportive of the president taking early action, but he hasn't done that - and now that it's been delayed this much, I think that Congress does have a role to play here," Chambliss said. But he predicted a "very, very tough debate" contingent on Mr. Obama's ability to detail his strategy.

"I would say if the president cannot make his case to Congress then it's not going to pass," he said. "He's got to come out and really be in-depth with respect to the intelligence that we know is out there; he's got to be in-depth with respect to what type of military action is going to be taken, and what is our current strategy? And how does this military strike impact that particular strategy?"

Kaine predicted that after a "very historic and important debate, lawmakers will "rally behind the principle that use of chemical weapons is wrong and it can't go unpunished." He echoed remarks by Kerry earlier on the show that the president's decision to involve Congress offers the chance to present a united front to the world.

"We should not be sending servicemen and women into military conflict if they don't have complete confidence that the nation's political leadership is behind them," Kaine said. "And so what this debate in Congress will do is it will educate the American public about the important principles at stake against use of chemical weapons. And it will help them understand, and help Congress come to a consensus about what needs to be done.

"...If we can reach a consensus, we will be much stronger as a nation," he concluded. "And the likelihood of success of our actions will be, I think, great."

If lawmakers can't, though, Ornstein pointed out, it's not over: "The president isn't necessarily asking for congressional approval; he made it clear he has the power to do this on his own. If Congress says 'no' by one of two votes, it doesn't mean the president can't still carry out a strike. He's still got options."

Should that situation arise, whether the president chooses to defy Congress "depends," Ornstein said. "Let's say Congress votes down the resolution by a narrow margin; a short while later, Assad does an even more awful chemical attack. At that point, the president might say, 'Let's just go ahead and act.'

"I think he now knows he lives in an environment where he's going to be ripped apart no matter what he does," Ornstein said of the president. "So, he might be up for taking a calculated gamble. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don't. I think over the next couple of weeks you're going to see Obama, Kerry, maybe Biden, pushing this message that, 'OK, we sat back while people were gassed in the second world war. Is that really what we want to do?

"Considering the narrowness of what the resolution's going to have to be," he continued, "it's a gamble."

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CBS News

Updated at 9:22 p.m. ET

Facing resistance at home and abroad about the prospect of a U.S. attack on Syria, President Obama said Saturday that he has decided the U.S. should take military action against the Syrian regime in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons.

He also promised to seek congressional approval after lawmakers return from their recess Sept. 9, saying that he does not believe the law requires him to seek approval, but America will be "stronger" if he does.

"Ten days ago the world watched in horror as men, women and children were massacred in Syria in the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century," Mr. Obama said, calling the attack an "assault on human dignity" and saying the U.S. had presented a convincing case that the regime of Bashar Assad was responsible.

"In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted," he said. "After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets."

The president reiterated that the intervention would be "limited in duration in scope," and he suggested that the attack plan is not time sensitive - that it would be as effective in a month as it would be immediately.

"The military has positioned assets in the region. We are prepared to strike whenever we choose," he said, "and I am prepared to give that order."

In addition, perhaps nodding to the many lawmakers who have demanded the president seek congressional approval before launching any military action, Mr. Obama said he would "seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress."

"This morning I spoke with [congressional leaders in both houses from both parties], and they've agreed to schedule a debate and a vote as soon as Congress comes back into session," he said. "While I believe I have the authority to carry out this action without specific congressional authorization, our country will be stronger if we take this course."

"We should have this debate because the issues are too big for business as usual," the president said, posing a question to those members of Congress who have questioned the wisdom or legality of U.S. action in Syria: "What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children in plain sight and pay no price?"

The president acknowledged the British Parliament's failure this week to approve a resolution sanctioning intervention in Syria, but he vowed to seek a similar vote in Congress despite the resistance among Capitol Hill rank and file, saying he's "looking forward to the debate." Shortly after his statement, the president and Vice President Biden headed to Fort Belvoir in Virginia to play golf.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who asked the British Parliament to approve the use of military force but was rebuffed, tweeted his support of Mr. Obama's decision after it was announced. "I understand and support Barack Obama's position on #Syria," he wrote.

The United Nations, hamstrung by the presence of Syrian ally Russia on the Security Council, has also been unable to muster an international condemnation of the chemical attack. Mr. Obama, who said he was comfortable with the use of force against Syria, even without a U.N. mandate, is resisting the pressure from the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, who has been clear that military action without Security Council authorization is prohibited by the U.N. Charter.

In a briefing on the meeting between U.N. weapons inspector Angela Kane and the secretary general on Saturday, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said that over 1,000 U.N. staff from a dozen agencies remain in Syria, CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk reports from U.N. headquarters in New York. Nesirky said the the U.N. inspection team will return to Syria after the completion of their report on the most recent incident, to follow up on other sites.

Back home, however, immediate congressional reaction to the president's statement sounded an encouraging note. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement that "the president's role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress."

In addition, House GOP leaders led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a statement explaining, "We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised. In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th."

At least one lawmaker, however, warned that the president's decision to seek congressional approval was a mistake. "President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents," warned Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., in a statement. "The President does not need Congress to authorize a strike on Syria. If Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians deserves a military response, and I believe it does, and if the President is seeking congressional approval, then he should call Congress back into a special session at the earliest date."

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., critiqued the president's proposed military response as "inadequate" in a statement. "We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the President's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict," they said.

On Saturday, the White House sent a letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate regarding draft legislation on the authorization of use of force in Syria. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez announced that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on Tuesday to discuss the authorization for use of military force.

"I have spoken with Leader Reid and beginning this Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will debate the Authorization for Use of Military Force in Syria," said Menendez, who is the chairman of the committee. "Senior Administration witnesses will testify before the Committee and the Congress will debate this issue actively, fully, and publicly. It is my view that the use of military force in Syria is justified and necessary given the Assad regime's reprehensible use of chemical weapons and gross violation of international law. I look forward to sharing these views with my colleagues in the days ahead as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes to take up this vital national security issue."

On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, among others, held an unclassified conference call with Senate Democrats and Republicans to "continue the administration's consultations regarding [the Syrian government's] use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21," according to a White House official.

And on Sunday afternoon, at Boehner's request, administration officials will meet in person with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Though many members have returned to their districts for the August congressional recess, the briefing will be held on Capitol Hill.

On Saturday morning, members of the president's national security team, including Hagel, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Attorney General Eric Holder, were spotted entering the White House. Administration officials declined to characterize any national security meetings under way.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry laid out evidence that gives U.S. officials "high confidence" that Assad's regime was responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Syria's capital that killed 1,429 civilians, including 426 children, according to a declassified U.S. intelligence report.

"So the primary question is really no longer 'What do we know?'" Kerry said. "The question is...'What are we in the world going to do about it?'"

Kerry and Mr. Obama made a moral and instrumental case on Friday for a strong U.S. response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, which both characterized as a violation of a critically important international norm. Mr. Obama said Assad's use of chemical weapons posed a direct threat to U.S. national security because it would undermine the international consensus against the use of such weapons and could embolden other rogue regimes to flout international norms in a similar fashion.

The president emphasized on Friday, as he did again on Saturday, that the intervention would be "limited" and "narrow" in scope and would not involve boots on the ground. However, he and Kerry both warned that the consequences of doing nothing would greatly outstrip the perils of action.

Regardless, many in Congress continued to raise concerns about the possibility of U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war, and the weekend's briefings are likely intended to tamp down concern among lawmakers about the wisdom and legality of the planned U.S. strike.

Some lawmakers have pushed for quick, robust action in Syria, while others have said they would not support a strike they don't believe is in America's security interests. Finding a middle ground, many lawmakers simply urged the administration to consult more closely with Congress as it mulls a path forward in Syria.

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