By Reid J. Epstein and Seung Min Kim
Anti-war Democrats in Congress are getting the band back together.
Democrats who made their names opposing the Iraq war are not staying silent as a president of their own party prepares to attack Syria.
But they're not exactly demanding that President Barack Obama stand down from launching airstrikes in the country. Like many Republican lawmakers, they want Congress to authorize any military action there and are urging the administration to allow a healthy debate on the proper U.S. role -- if any -- in the dangerous country. But their criticism, at this point, falls short of total condemnation.
The anti-war Democrats are just organizing and starting to gain steam. Many of them admitted they're likely to gather more force after a potential attack occurs instead of before it.
"There is ferment out there -- you just haven't seen it yet," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). "If they fire rockets in there, you'll see a lot of people saying this is an absolute mistake, they should not have done it, I do not support it. The storm will follow if [Obama] goes without having the backing of the Congress."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on Wednesday circulated a letter among liberal Democrats -- 12 have signed on so far -- that asked Obama to "seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis."
"Let's be clear that the letter is calling for a specific action: debate," said Lee, a former co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "Congress must assert our authority on this issue; that's a bipartisan cause."
Aside from Lee's letter, there has been little coordination among anti-war Democrats who oppose the Syrian action. Part of their caution could be a desire to wait out the consequences of a U.S. attack and see how successfully it's carried out before condemning it.
"Most members of Congress of both parties would prefer to sit it out," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). "If the president does well, they can say, "Gee we were there with him.' If the president doesn't do well, they can say, "We were against it.'"
Congressional Democrats were "incredibly critical of the Bush administration and the run-up to Iraq," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). "I think there is a high bar to be passed here, and I think there needs to be a strong voice."
Democrats, he said, have been too meek in challenging Obama on the merits of his case for attacking Syria after allegations that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against citizens.
"I wish folks would be a little more vocal in asking for this," he said. "We have to challenge the administration. If we're being true to who we are, it is about the constitutional responsibility of the House and it should not matter who is the occupant of the White House."
Right now, the loudest voices condemning possible airstrikes have come from Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia on Tuesday has collected more than 110 signatures from Democrats and Republicans for a letter urging Obama to seek congressional authorization before attacking Syria.
"The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States," Paul said Wednesday.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said he hasn't consulted with colleagues about how best to oppose attacks in Syria.
"It's a fact that its difficult sometimes to criticize a president who belongs to your party," Grayson said. "That certainly is true and my feeling is that I never swore allegiance to the president, I swore to uphold the Constitution."
Grayson, who said responding to Syrian atrocities is not in the U.S. national interest, said it's likely that congressional Democrats will become more vocal about the Syria attacks after they take place. Having a strong opinion about it now, he said, would require more research than most of his colleagues are able to do over the August recess.
"Members of Congress typically don't take the time to examine the evidence independently," Grayson said. "It's probably asking a little bit too much to ask every member of Congress to examine all of the information."
Instead what's happened is anti-war Democrats are demanding Obama seek their authorization.
"Calling for the Congress to meet and to act doesn't presuppose what the conclusion will be," said Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). "Put me down as a skeptic, but in fairness, I would listen and give the kind of thorough consideration that such a question deserves."
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said Obama's White House is "getting ready to overstep its authority right now" and that Congress has "ceded way too much authority to presidents."
He said his experience in lobbying against intervention in Libya two years ago showed the congressional anti-war movement is alive and well.
"I was very impressed with the discussion on Libya a couple years ago when there was strong bipartisan sentiment not to get involved," Schrader said.
And Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) said a U.S. response is "appropriate" but only with congressional approval.
"Congressional involvement not only will add credibility to our actions in the international community, it will send a stronger message to the Syrian regime that America stands united against its despicable acts," Braley said.
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who voted against funding the Afghanistan war in 2009, declined to say whether it is appropriate for Obama to attack Syria. Congress, he said, will have the last word when it comes to paying for the operation.
"This proposal is very new to us, and I would hope that members of Congress would take the time to hear the case and the president and hear the other side before offering poorly informed opinions," Polis said. "I would hope that we will all have a classified briefing on this either in an emergency briefing or upon our return to Washington."
To veterans of congressional battles over the Iraq war during the Bush years, that kind of talk doesn't go nearly far enough.
"I'm disappointed in the Democratic leadership for not raising more questions," said former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). "We have to stop putting party above country here, and it's obvious that partisan concerns are trumping the national interest."
Waiting until after airstrikes start, Kucinich said, will be far too late.
"Members of Congress need to be heard from now," he said. "Having been in the position that members find themselves, I think there's a certain number of members who are not really believing that this is going to happen. You have that and you also have a lot of new members who are not really sure how to respond."
And former Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who once gave her State of the Union ticket to anti-Iraq war activist Cindy Sheehan, said the cautious nature of her former colleagues leads them to go along with whatever information they receive from the White House, especially when they share a party with the president.
"They have to be so careful," she said. "Look how few of us spoke out knowing that Iraq was a big lie."