Plan B on Syria: Four options for Obama if Congress won't act

If President Obama fails to get Congress to go along with airstrikes against Syria over alleged use of chemical weapons, he can still act – though he would pay a price.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Protesters against US military action in Syria march in front of the White House on Monday. On Tuesday, President Obama will address the nation regarding Syria.

President Obama’s prospects for congressional approval of limited US airstrikes in Syria look bad, especially in the House.

But administration officials insist most members remain undecided. And Mr. Obama and his top aides are working mightily to sway them – and public opinion – with interviews, speeches, and personal arm-twisting. Obama is doing six network-TV interviews Monday and a televised address to the nation Tuesday evening. He also travels to Capitol Hill Tuesday to meet with Senate Democrats. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden hosted six senators at his residence – and Obama joined in.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed Syria at a White House event Monday on wildlife preservation. National Security Adviser Susan Rice spoke on Syria at the New America Foundation in Washington Monday afternoon. Secretary of State John Kerry is still working the international community, and after returning to Washington on Monday, will hold closed-door briefings for members of Congress.

But all of this may not be enough, even as the Obama administration insists it has plenty of evidence that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used nerve gas against his own people last month – and has distributed videos it says provide evidence.

A failure to get both houses of Congress on board with airstrikes would be a huge blow to the president. But he would still have options in Syria. Here are some: 

Launch airstrikes with just Senate approval

Of Congress’s two chambers, Obama’s prospects for support are higher in the Democratic-controlled Senate than in the Republican-controlled House, even though plenty of Senate Democrats have expressed reservations or outright opposition.  And liberal activist groups are turning up the heat, as American opposition to airstrikes surges – 15 points in the past week, from 48 percent to 63 percent, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, released Monday.

But in facing voters only every six years, senators have more freedom than House members in their votes – especially those not up for reelection in 2014. Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution granting Obama limited authority to launch airstrikes by a vote of 10 to 7.

Striking at Syria with just Senate approval may not pass the straight-face test of “congressional approval” for military action, but it would provide Obama with some cover.

Launch airstrikes without the support of either chamber

Administration officials have insisted that this won’t happen. But Obama has consistently left open that possibility since Aug. 31, when he made the surprise announcement that he would ask Congress for a vote. He said that if Congress were consulted, US actions would be “more effective,” but he also maintained that he had “the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.”

Reports of extensive US military planning for airstrikes add heft to the notion that Obama might just go for it regardless of what Congress does. A leading authority on presidential power paints a scenario in which Obama goes ahead without congressional approval.

"I'm sure he'd say this is a national security crisis. He'd say, 'I asked Congress. They weren't able to pass legislation. We're going to go ahead,' " Louis Fisher, a presidential scholar with the Constitution Project, told USA Today last week. "I think he could do that, but that he would pay one heck of a political price."

Two different resolutions

Another possibility is that the Senate passes one resolution, and the House passes a different version, given the range of political imperatives that need to be satisfied to win majorities in both houses. The Senate could authorize airstrikes, while the more squeamish House could come back with something that falls short of immediate authorization. And the president could decide that’s good enough to launch action.

Keep working on building international support

Over the weekend, Secretary Kerry said that Saudi Arabia had endorsed a US-led strike against Syria, and the foreign minister of Qatar added his country’s support. Kerry suggested other Arab countries would offer support soon. Monday afternoon, the White House released an expanded list of nations signing on to a statement condemning Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and calling for a “strong international response.”

But none of that adds up to an international coalition willing to take action against Syria that goes beyond verbal condemnation. So far, Turkey and France are the US’s only non-Arab allies in backing a military response to Syria. On Friday, French President Francois Hollande, himself under intense political pressure at home to stay out of this fight, said he wanted to wait for a preliminary report from UN weapons inspectors.

On Monday, Syrian ally Russia suggested it put Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons under international control – a suggestion that the Syrian government said it supported. The Obama administration also reacted to the idea positively, but with skepticism.

"We'd have to take a hard look. Any transfer of chemical weapons to international control would be a positive development," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said in an interview on MSNBC, according to Politico. "We've been highly skeptical to date. They have not even declared their chemical weapons stockpiles."

Administration officials also said that, despite the Russian offer, they were not backing away from their threat of military action against Syria, and the effort to get Congress to authorize limited airstrikes. 

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