Syria crisis: Dovish Democrats urge Obama to consult Congress

In a letter, 54 Democratic lawmakers urged Obama Thursday to 'seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any US military engagement to this complex crisis.'

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama pauses while speaking at Henninger High School in Syracuse, N.Y., Aug. 22, 2013. Lawmakers sent a letter to the White House Thursday 'expressing unequivocal condemnation over the news that chemical weapons were reportedly used by the government of Syria' but also cautioning against bypassing Congress.

With Washington focused on the prospect of military action in Syria as retaliation for the apparent use of chemical weapons by its government, whither Congress’s more liberal members?

It seems the doves have a dilemma. To support their Democratic president in the quest to right a humanitarian wrong? Or to back the institutional protections that require congressional approval before a White House can engage in anything resembling war?

“There’s a certain wing in the Democratic Party that’s pacifist that doesn’t support the use of force in most instances, except in the case of an attack on the US,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. “I don’t think they’re going to move.”

These and other Democrats are also concerned that public opinion isn’t yet in favor of military intervention in Syria. Mr. Obama should not move forward with military action, they say, without a full congressional review and members’ approval.

Spearheaded by Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of California, 54 Democratic members, many of whom made up the coalition of those opposed to the last Iraq war, sent a letter to the White House Thursday “expressing unequivocal condemnation over the news that chemical weapons were reportedly used by the government of Syria” but also cautioning against bypassing Congress. The apparent human rights violations there “should not draw us into an unwise war,” they write.

“While we understand that as Commander in Chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force, even if the United States or its direct interests (such as its embassies) have not been attacked or threatened with an attack.”

These lawmakers urge Obama to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any US military engagement to this complex crisis.”

Polls are an issue for members of Congress, regardless of party identification, and on the Syria matter, they’re showing the public to be war weary following years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Reuters-Ipsos survey released recently indicated that most Americans want nothing to do with military action in Syria – some 60 percent are opposed, while 9 percent are in favor. The number in support of intervention only modestly increases – to 25 percent – when the variable of a chemical weapons attack is introduced.

Iraq fatigue is of particular note where Syria is concerned. After all, the evidence presented by the administration of President George W. Bush as he made his case for war there turned out not to be accurate.

Democrats, and Republicans, reflecting on the Iraq intervention, which dragged on for years, are proving they’re once bitten and twice shy.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, who opposed the Iraq intervention and Thursday signed onto Lee’s letter, wants a congressional vote, not just a briefing. The president, she says, needs to make an appeal to Congress. It is, after all, she reminds him, the people’s house.

“Aside from the legal requirement, there’s a political requirement,” she said Thursday afternoon in an appearance on MSNBC. “The president apparently believes that some kind of military action should be taken. The American public doesn’t agree. So he needs to make his case. We need to listen carefully to his arguments to understand why bombing Syria would be good for America, good for the world. What’s the end game?”

The tensions in Syria and prospect of strikes there seem to be drawing together an unlikely grouping of tea party Republicans and more conservative members with liberal Democrats, according to former Democratic congressman Tom Perriello, who represented Virginia’s fifth congressional district in the House from 2009 to 2011 and now serves as president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. [Editor's note: The original version of this story did not list the correct name for the organization with which Mr. Perriello is affiliated.]

Perriello believes Obama does not need congressional approval in this case for a limited engagement in Syria but that it helps his cause to have “as much buy-in as possible from the legislative branch.”

“For those of us who care about international norms and crimes against humanity, you’re likely to come down on the side of intervening in some way,” Perriello says. “I really do think that members of Congress from both parties are taking very seriously this question of whether this is the next Iraq or the next Rwanda.”

On the matter of congressional sanction of the administration’s Syria policy, it seems the parties aren’t that far apart – about process at least. House Republicans, almost 100 of them, have lined up to register their fervent plea that President Obama consult Congress before taking any military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Another 18 Democrats signed onto that letter to the White House, which was circulated by Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who voted against the US invasion of Iraq during the Bush years, was one of them.

“Since there is no imminent threat to the United States, there is no legal justification for bypassing the constitutionally required congressional authorization,” said Nadler, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

“The American people deserve to have this decision debated and made in the open with all the facts and arguments laid out for public review and debate, followed by a congressional vote.”

The White House is actively engaged in courting congressional approval, although for now that process seems informal. In a conference call Thursday evening, the White House provided leading members of Congress with evidence that the Syrian regime had carried out chemical weapons attacks that killed hundreds of civilians. With members out of session until Sept. 9, Obama would have to call them back to town for a more formal vote.

For his own political cover, and perhaps for the good of his party more broadly, many members believe he should allow Congress to do its part to weigh the issues involved in the Syria conflict. Lofgren says Congress has been overly lenient in recent years in allowing presidents to seize too much authority over these types of interventions.

“Congress has been complicit in allowing the executive, including this one, but not just this one, to act without regard to the requirements of the constitution, and without regard to the War Powers Act,” she said on MSNBC. “I think that’s not correct. It’s not the right course of action. The fact that it’s happened in the past does not mean at this juncture in our history that we shouldn’t go back to what the law and constitution requires. I think the country will be better off if we do.”

And, she added: “There’s a broad bipartisan consensus, way more than a majority in the House, that says the same thing.”

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