Policy

If Obama Bypasses Congress on Syria, Will He Face Consequences?

Dozens of House Republicans and a smattering of Democrats are demanding President Barack Obama get congressional authorization before ordering attacks on Syria, but no lawmaker seems to have an answer for what they will do if Obama goes ahead anyway.

While some Republicans have bandied about in recent weeks the idea of impeaching the president, no one's yet seriously pursuing that avenue with regard to Syria.

"The phrase is a very serious term," said Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va. "It's sobering, and it's not one that I'm flippant with."

Rigell is behind a letter signed by dozens of members of Congress calling on Obama to seek Congress' authorization before striking Syria or else risk "violat[ing] the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution." In an interview with CQ Roll Call on Tuesday, he reiterated that "by any objective measure," Obama was "pushing the boundaries" of constitutionality.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said "the impeachment battle is not one that I think we could win," but he said he would support impeachment proceedings should someone else bring them up.

"I wouldn't initiate them myself, although it is clearly unconstitutional," Massie said of conducting a war in Syria without a specific authorization. "I'm just not the guy who will be leading this charge."

It's not clear what else Congress could do on the issue, particularly given that the White House has telegraphed that the attacks would be of a short duration and could be over before lawmakers return from the August break.

Congressional impotence in the face of a president intent on military action isn't new; the Syria debate is to some extent a replay of the dispute over Obama's launching of cruise missiles in Libya in 2011 without Congressional authorization. Backers of that intervention, including then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sought to pass an authorization, but those efforts failed, as did an effort to end the operation.

At that time, Obama argued that he was not required to seek Congress' approval under the War Powers Act, which prohibits acts of military force in a foreign country except in cases of a national emergency. Instead, Obama said, the mission was being led by NATO allies and involved minimal danger to U.S. armed forces.

That doesn't mean lawmakers didn't complain — both then and now.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to committee chairmen to members of the GOP rank-and-file are at a minimum demanding robust consultation with Congress, although Boehner has not called for the House to return to take up the issue or said Congress must authorize a strike.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said in a statement Tuesday that while the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons is "unacceptable," Obama has a responsibility to "consult with Congress, and explain to the American people, whether this action has indeed crossed the 'red line.'"

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., released a statement of his own, calling the consequences of military action in Syria "too great for Congress to be brushed aside."

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., described the intent of the Founding Fathers in lengthy detail in respect to the War Powers Act, concluding that absent authorization from Congress, "the order of a military attack on the government of Syria would be illegal and unconstitutional."

Meanwhile, statements from Obama's Democratic allies in the House also began to pile up Tuesday night in light of the growing probability that the White House could by the end of this week go into Syria without consultation from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are still back in their home districts for the August recess.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee who also signed onto Rigell's letter, suggested that everyone, "including members of the Administration," read the War Powers Act to clarify the parameters for deciding whether to use military force.

"An effort is being made by the Administration to comply with International Law — but first we must comply with American law," Lofgren said. "The War Powers Act requires action by Congress before engaging in hostilities unless our country is attacked. The civil war in Syria, with its atrocities, is a matter of serious humanitarian condition. But this civil war does not constitute an attack on the U.S."

And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., while stopping short of saying she felt congressional involvement was imperative, said that "Members of Congress stand ready to consult with President Obama to consider the appropriate course of action in response to these acts of brutality."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., dismissed the talk of Congress coming back to vote on an authorization as an academic exercise on MSNBC on Tuesday, even though U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled Parliament. "It's not going to happen," Corker said.

Correction: Aug. 28, 1:39 p.m.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte had signed the Rigell letter.