U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R.-Mo., was one of the more than 140 members of Congress who signed a letter last week demanding that President Obama seek congressional authorization for any military action against Syria. U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, and U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., also signed the letter.
Long said in a telephone interview on Friday with The Globe that he was calling on Obama to present to Congress “his side of the story” regarding possible action against Syria.
“According to the Constitution, the president needs to consult with Congress before taking any kind of military action like that,” said Long.
On Saturday, Obama unexpectedly announced plans to seek congressional approval before launching any military action meant to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Last week, Republicans and Democrats in Congress were pressing Obama to explain why the U.S. should attack Syria and involve Americans in that civil war.
Some members of the House and Senate argued that the president had so far failed to make a case for a U.S. military strike despite the administration’s conclusion that the Syrian government carried out a large-scale chemical weapons attack against civilians, even though the president had warned that such an act would cross his “red line.”
The letter signed by Long and other area representatives was written by U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who argued that intervention without congressional approval would be unconstitutional.
“While the founders wisely gave the office of the president the authority to act in emergencies, they foresaw the need to ensure public debate — and the active engagement of Congress — prior to committing U.S. military assets,” Rigell wrote in the letter. “Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”
Jenkins, in a statement issued Saturday, said that while she was pleased with Obama’s decision to see authorization from Congress, she remains “unconvinced military action against Syria is in our nation's best interest and I plan to oppose authorization.”
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, in a statement Saturday afternoon, said: “After weeks of claiming he could and would make this decision on his own, the president's announcement today marks an astonishing change of course. While congressional approval is the best course of action and the right thing to do, it would have been the right course of action months ago.”
War Powers Act
Local experts on the U.S. government said the debate between the president and Congress over Syria is fraught with several complex legal and constitutional questions, including whether Obama has the authority to act without prior approval from Congress.
“There’s no clear answer where everybody would agree what needs to be done,” said Paul Zagorski, a professor of political science at Pittsburg State University. “This is the sort of issue that constitutional lawyers can argue about forever.”
The U.S. Constitution is “clear” that although the president is the commander in chief of the military, a declaration of war is a congressional call, according to Darren Botello-Samson, an associate professor of political science at PSU.
However, the War Powers Act gives the president up to 90 days to engage in military activities without prior congressional approval but with specific conditions, such as prompt notification to Congress, he said. The constitutionality of that act, which was passed in 1973 by lawmakers on an override of President Richard Nixon’s veto, has been questioned by legal scholars, he said.
“The argument goes that if the Constitution gives to Congress the authority to go to war, then Congress cannot alienate that authority; they cannot pass it off to someone else,” Botello-Samson said. “If Obama were to take unilateral action, as long as he notifies Congress within 48 hours, he is abiding by the law, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right and legal.”
With Navy ships on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch their cruise missiles, Obama said Saturday 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.”
Congress has not used its constitutional powers to declare war on a country since World War II, but recent presidents have increasingly used the rights given to them in the War Powers Act, said Nicholas Nicoletti, an assistant professor of political science at Missouri Southern State University.
Obama, for example, previously used force in Libya in 2011, while President Bill Clinton took military action against Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, he said.
“Presidential use of force over time has expanded,” Nicoletti said. “Generally, presidents have a lot of leeway over the use of force.”
In his interview, Long was hesitant to suggest that Americans should get involved, saying that the United States couldn’t act as a “policeman to the world.”
“In a civil war conflict like this, I don’t know how an outside force has much of a role at all,” he said. “It could turn into a big, big brouhaha.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said he has informed the administration that he could not support any military strike against Syria unless Obama presents a detailed strategy to Congress and provides a defense budget to support any action.
Other Republicans, however, welcomed Obama’s decision.
“We are glad the president is seeking authorization for any military action in Syria in response to serious, substantive questions being raised,” House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other House Republican leaders said in a joint statement. “In consultation with the president, we expect the House to consider a measure the week of September 9th. This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people.”
While lawmakers are scheduled to return to work on Sept. 9, officials said it was possible the Senate might come back before then.
New York Republican Rep. Peter King was among the dissenters, strongly so. “President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents,” he said. “The president doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.
THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, an organization that monitors casualties in the country, said it has confirmed 502 deaths from the chemical attack, nearly 1,000 fewer than the American intelligence assessment claimed.