WASHINGTON – After a day of stunning developments in the U.S. confrontation with Syria, this much was clear: Congress is by no means certain to give President Obama the go-ahead he seeks to punish the Damascus regime.
Republicans and Democrats alike praised the commander-in-chief’s surprise bid to seek congressional approval for such an attack, but almost no one offered quick support for his decision to strike, and there are no plans so far for Congress to return to Washington before the scheduled Sept. 9 start of the fall session.
Instead, lawmakers called for a debate over the virtues of an attack, which may add to the gridlock that paralyzed almost all of Obama’s domestic agenda this year, including government spending, the debt ceiling and changes in immigration law.
“Syria may be a very easy vote for Congress to vote against,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former House and Senate leadership aide, in an interview. “It’s not necessarily a slam dunk for the president to go and act.”
Short on support at home and allies abroad, Obama, appearing in the Rose Garden, unexpectedly stepped back from a missile attack against Syria and instead asked Congress to support a strike punishing Bashar Assad’s regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said he had decided the United States should take military action and that he believes that as commander in chief, he has “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”
At the same time, he said, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course and our actions will be even more effective.” His remarks were televised live in the United States as well as on Syrian state television with translation.
Congress is scheduled to return from a summer vacation Sept. 9, and in anticipation of the coming debate, Obama challenged lawmakers to consider “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price.”
By accident or design, the new timetable gives time for U.N. inspectors to receive lab results from the samples they took during four days in Damascus and to compile a final report. After leaving Syria overnight, the inspection team arrived in Rotterdam a few hours before Obama spoke.
The group’s leader was expected to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today.
Whatever Congress ultimately decides, the developments marked a stunning turn.
France is Obama’s only major foreign ally to date for a strike, public polling shows support is lukewarm in the United States, and dozens of lawmakers in both parties have signed a letter urging Obama not to act without their backing. Outside the gates of the White House, the chants of protesters could be heard as the president stepped to his podium in the Rose Garden.
Had he gone ahead with a military strike, Obama would have become the first U.S. leader in three decades to attack a foreign nation without mustering broad international support or acting in direct defense of Americans. Not since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada, has the United States been so alone in pursuing major lethal military action beyond a few attacks responding to strikes or threats against its citizens.
By day’s end Saturday, the White House had sent Congress a draft of a resolution, crafted by the White House, to authorize Obama to use military force.
The draft does not lay out a specific timeline or course of military action, instead giving Obama approval to use the military as he determines
Members of Congress, abruptly handed the war powers many had demanded, grappled with whether to sign off on Obama’s plan to punish Syria.
The debate over what action, if any, Congress might approve is in its infancy as lawmakers prepare for public hearings next week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the first contours began emerging within hours of Obama’s announcement.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he doesn’t believe Syria should go unpunished for the Aug. 21 attack near Damascus. “But we need to understand what the whole scope of consequences is,” he said by telephone. “What the president may perceive as limited ... won’t stop there.”
Arguing for a strategy that seeks to end Assad’s rule, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina issued a joint statement saying that any operation should be broader in scope than the “limited” scope Obama described.
“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, which is a growing threat to our national security interests,” the senators said.
Israel’s safety was also a key concern. Dealing a blow to Iranian-backed Syria could mean a retaliatory strike against a key ally staunchly backed by many lawmakers, and some said that any president would need the weight of Congress behind him in such a situation.
“The potential for escalation in this situation is so great that I think it’s essential that the president not be out there on his own,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in an interview.
But that’s a different question than whether to carry out such a strike. Like Cornyn, Thornberry said he wanted to know what the goals would be – and the consequences. In town halls held over the recess, he said, constituents asked him why what happened in Syria should matter to them.
“The president has to convince us,” Thornberry said.
If Obama intended to make the debate less about his leadership and more about the policy, the move to seek authorization didn’t work on Rep. Peter King.
King, a New York Republican and a member of the House’s intelligence committee, suggested that the president was undermining the authority of future presidents and seeking a political shield for himself by going through Congress.
“The president doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line,” King said.