Congress wants a say on Syria strategy, split on timing, what to do

Story highlights

  • President Donald Trump ordered strikes on a Syrian air base Thursday
  • Members of Congress want Trump to seek Hill's approval before pursuing more action

(CNN)Congress found a rare point of bipartisan agreement Friday, demanding that President Donald Trump consult them on any further action in Syria, but splitting over how soon they should open that debate and whether the US should launch another full-scale war in the Middle East.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been broadly supportive of Trump's decision to strike back after Syria's chemical attack. But Democrats and some Republicans have said they now want more answers on what Trump's next steps will be -- and whether that will require Congress to authorize further action.
The bigger question of whether the US should wage a full-scale war in Syria has scrambled typical partisan battle lines in the Capitol, with hard-line conservatives, libertarians and staunch liberals lining up against any intervention, and more moderate and mainstream Democrats and Republicans suggesting that Trump present a long-term plan before Congress.
    House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called on the House of Representatives Friday to return from its two-week break in order to debate whether to authorize military action against Syria.
    "The President's action and any response demands that we immediately do our duty. Congress must live up to its constitutional responsibility to debate an Authorization of the Use of Military Force against a sovereign nation," Pelosi wrote in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Friday, just 12 hours after US forces launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase.
    But a Ryan spokeswoman would not say Friday whether he would agree to cancel lawmakers' two-week break to open debate.
    "The chemical weapons attack committed by the Assad regime was a flagrant violation of international standards, and preventing a deepening of the humanitarian crisis and instability in Syria is clearly in the United States' national interest," Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in a statement Friday. "As such, last night's response was fully within the President's authority. It is now appropriate for the administration to consult with Congress as it considers next steps to resolve the long-running crisis in Syria."
    Senators were briefed on the strike and next steps Friday afternoon at the Capitol. Just a few hours before that briefing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that US allies in the Middle East should be heartened by Thursday's strike.
    "If I were one of our Sunni Arab allies watching this, I'd be encouraged that America was back in the business of being more assertive, less passive. That does not mean you are going to send in the troops every time there is a skirmish somewhere, but I thought it was very reassuring," McConnell told reporters.

    Liberals and libertarians

    Liberal lawmakers, including Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, opposed military action in response to chemical attacks.
    "There is no 'military only' solution to the suffering in Syria," Gillibrand said in a statement Friday. "The American people need answers from the Administration about their plan here and how they will bring coalition partners to the table for a long-term diplomatic solution."
    Libertarian-leaning Republicans came to a similar conclusion, but based on opposition to the US engaging in another long-term quagmire in the Middle East.
    Sen. Rand Paul, who golfed with Trump last weekend, said that the President's initial instincts voiced as a candidate about staying out of the Middle East were correct, and the recent shift he made after seeing the horrific pictures were a dangerous way to operate. There are horrifying things happening in all corners of the world, can't get emotional.
    "I think the President's instincts are similar to mine. I think he is not anxious to have the regime change, he's not anxious to be involved in every civil war. I think he's gone a different route on this particular instance," Paul told CNN's Phil Mattingly Friday. "But I think his overall persona and his overall beliefs about the Middle East are that being involved in every civil war is not a great idea."
    Pelosi's comments led a Democratic charge for Congress to vote to authorize military action in Syria. It's a step Congress was unable — or unwilling — to take several years ago when Obama decided to ask Congress for approval first before he would strike the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
    Trump did not wait for that step, swiftly moving to respond to the chemical attack with a strike of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from US warships.
    But Trump's airstrike against Assad, in isolation, is more similar to Obama's 2011 decision to use US warplanes to bomb Libya, which helped lead to the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi. Obama did not come to Congress before launching US military strikes in Libya, a decision that drew harsh criticisms from Republicans weary of an overreaching US military in the Middle East.

    Republicans want Congress involved

    Republicans, who frequently argued that Obama's foreign policy in the Mideast was too timid, and didn't need congressional approval for airstrikes are now suggesting that this time Congress be part of a debate on the continued strategy going forward.
    Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and close ally of Ryan's, pressed other lawmakers to go on record now on the issue, saying, "Congress owes President Trump our best counsel and our best advice, as to how he should pursue America's priorities. The best way to do so is for his administration to seek an AUMF and for Congress to give him one."
    Republicans on Friday were defending Trump's strike. Sen. Marco Rubio, a defense hawk who has often been at odds with Trump, praised the President's decision Friday and said that the missile strike was clearly legal.
    "For those reasons, I think that had a clear objective. and they put the appropriate resources in order to achieve that. And let's remember, this strike is legal," Rubio said on CNN's "New Day."
    Following Friday afternoon's briefing, Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and an occasional Trump adviser on foreign policy, cautioned the White House that it could do a better job next time alerting lawmakers before the missiles are launched.
    The decision to launch the strike was made around 4 p.m. ET, missiles were launched at 7:40 p.m. ET and struck around 8:30 p.m. ET, but many members of Congress were not alerted until around 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
    "I mean, they need to do a little better job on the front end. But they know that, they know that," Corker told reporters. "They were scrambling around and they did the best they could, and they had multiple people contacting folks. They made an extreme effort, but they know that with the timing of this it would be a little bit better if, you know, there was a little more time and a little more interaction."
    Sen. Lindsey Graham, a defense hawk who has been roundly supportive of Trump's strike in Syria, cautioned his colleagues that if they have a problem with the strike or further strikes, they would have to hit at the defense budget.
    "To all of my colleague who think that this President cannot act without your approval you don't understand the way the Constitution works," Graham said. "Here is your authority and your power to do something about it, the power of the purse. If you don't like what's he's going to do in the future or what he's doing now then you can defund these operations. That's the power of Congress."

    Reviving an old fight

    The debate over authorizing military action against Assad is also reviving and effort for Congress to authorize the war against ISIS.
    Some lawmakers pushed during the Obama Administration to put Congress on record authorizing military operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, arguing that previous authorizations in 2001 and 2002 did not cover the current fight against the terror group. But leaders of both parties were reluctant to wade into the controversial debate so close to the 2016 election, especially after many publicly regretted their votes to approve the Iraq war.
    "What Syria did and President Bashar al-Assad did required action," Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, also said on "New Day." "The question is: What is the mission? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we get Assad out of Syria and end the civil war? We don't know the President's policies in that regard. There's a lot of questions Congress would like answers to and the American people would like to have answers to."
    In the hours after Thursday's strike, several lawmakers said they were reintroducing their bills for a war authorization against ISIS.
    "This missile strike and the military action of our forces already in Syria, have yet to be authorized by Congress," California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. "I will be re-introducing an authorization for use of military force against ISIS and al Qaeda when Congress returns to session."
    Schiff's war authorization bill, which he first introduced during the Obama administration, would set limits on the war against ISIS, including not allowing the use of US ground combat forces in Iraq and Syria. It would also give temporary authority for military action — a change from the 2001 AUMF that critics say have been used for an open-ended war on terror across the globe.
    The war authorization from Sen. Todd Young and Rep. Jim Banks, two Indiana Republicans, would not set the same limits.
    While the Banks and Young measure does repeal the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 Iraq War authorization — just as Schiff's does — it does not restrict the use of ground forces beyond seeking in an ISIS strategy "an end-state and exit strategy for any planned combat deployment of United States conventional ground forces."
    The differences in the two bills highlights the difficulties Democrats and Republicans will have agreeing upon the details of a new war authorization.