The Wall Street Journal - Unlikely Allies in Congress Question Obama Over Syria

News Article

By:  Dennis Ross Jim McDermott John Campbell III
Date: Aug. 31, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

By Cory Boles

Congressional unease over a potential U.S. military strike on Syria has created some unlikely allies in the normally divided House of Representatives.

Some of the most conservative and most liberal members of the House were among the 186 lawmakers who signed letters this past week calling on President Barack Obama to seek congressional authorization for any military action.

"At some point, the right and the left come together on things, often from a different perspective and for different reasons," said Rep. John Campbell (R., Calif.).

President Obama feels compelled to send Syria's President Assad a message over his alleged use of chemical weapons, says WSJ's Adam Entous. But any military action risks sucking the U.S. deeper into the country's civil war -- an outcome Washington wants to avoid.

But many conservatives and liberals say Mr. Obama is on a course that violates basic tenets of their political philosophies. Some Republicans, particularly those in the libertarian mold, are wary of foreign entanglements, as are some liberal Democrats. Many in both parties worry that Mr. Obama is proceeding without sufficient checks on executive-branch authority. They argue that Mr. Obama can't legally act without authorization from Congress, an assertion the White House rejects.

Absent a direct threat to the U.S., an attack on Syria without prior authorization from Congress "would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution," said a letter to Mr. Obama written by Rep. Scott Rigell (R., Va.). It was signed by 119 Republican lawmakers and 21 Democrats.

Similarly, a letter signed by 54 Democratic House members said that while Mr. Obama has the power to act in emergencies, "Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force.'' Eight Democrats signed both letters.

Lawmakers demanding a role in the decision diverge in some of their concerns. The letter from Democrats urged Mr. Obama to work within the U.N. Security Council "to build international consensus''--an approach that draws skepticism from most Republicans.

But members of both parties share many concerns in common. They include a lack of definitive proof, in their view, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the alleged chemical-weapons attack on Aug. 21, as well as complaints that the Obama administration hasn't articulated a clear strategy for the period after any U.S. attack. Some lawmakers said they were concerned about the conflict spreading across the region, perhaps by prompting Syria or its allies to retaliate by striking Israel.

"Conservative districts that some of these people represent have the exact same views of this war that people in my district do," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a liberal Democrat who represents Seattle.

Mr. McDermott said the vote by the U.K. Parliament against military action had cemented his opposition to U.S. involvement.

Rep. Dennis Ross, a tea party-aligned Republican from Florida, agreed. "It confirms what we're saying," he said about the vote in London on Thursday. He said he saw "no national interest in Syria. There are no hostilities threatening us."

A number of lawmakers support the Obama administration. Following a briefing by administration officials on Thursday, lawmakers including Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said they supported a limited strike by the U.S.

Although House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) has called for a detailed briefing of Congress by Mr. Obama, he hasn't said Mr. Obama must seek authorization for a strike from Congress.

This isn't the first national-security issue to draw joint concern from liberals and conservatives in Congress. Some 111 Democrats and 94 Republicans backed an effort in July to strip funding from the National Security Agency for a telephone data-collection program, after revelations about U.S. surveillance programs showed them to be broad in scope. The measure was defeated by just seven votes.

Democrats and Republicans have both expressed disquiet, and in some cases outright opposition, to the use of drones by the administration to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries.

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