Congress Demands Consultation on Syria, Might Want to Vote

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While President Obama claims he has "not made a decision" yet on how to respond to Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, it's become apparent that a military strike is imminent. With Congress out of session until September 9, many lawmakers seemed content to let events unfold as they enjoy the end of their summer recess, but by Wednesday nearly a quarter of the House had signed a letter urging the president to "to consult and receive authorization from Congress before ordering the use of U.S. military force in Syria." John Boehner also sent a letter urging Obama to consult Congress, but he stopped short of demanding a vote on the issue.

The letter penned by Rep. Scott Rigell, a Republican from Virginia, has been signed by 98 Republicans and eighteen Democrats. The lawmakers "strongly urge" President Obama to obtain congressional authorization, and remind him that "your responsibility to do so is prescribed in the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973" (though that hasn't stopped presidents from repeatedly using force overseas without Congress’s permission).

Boehner's letter asks Obama to "personally make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy." A senior administration official said on Wednesday night, "Once our intelligence community has made a formal assessment, we will provide the classified assessment to the Congress, and we will make unclassified details available to the public." The White House has also has briefed congressional leaders and committee chairs, but Boehner says it wasn't enough. He writes that "while the outreach has been appreciated" the administration has "not reached the level of substantive consultation."

What constitutes "substantive consultation" isn't spelled out, and Time's Alex Altman argues that's intentional. "Republicans will be happy to hammer the president for acting unilaterally, which Obama himself once disavowed," writes Altman. "But many want no part of a vote. Backbenchers could wind up on the wrong side of history. And Boehner would have to wrangle a majority out of a restive party that, on this issue, is perhaps even more divided than usual."

It isn't just Republicans who are hesitant to chime in. Politico reports that liberals in the House are circulating their own letter calling for the president to consult Congress, but only twelve have sign on so far, and many Democrats who voted against military intervention in the past seem ambivalent about opposing the president. "Most members of Congress of both parties would prefer to sit it out," says Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. "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.' "