Focus turns to Congress as US mulls Syria escalation
WASHINGTON D.C. - Many US lawmakers expressed support immediately after the Pentagon's air strikes on Syria. But President Donald Trump's backers and critics alike warn that he needs permission from Congress if he plans a military escalation.
The cruise-missile targeting of a Syrian regime air base has rekindled the debate in Congress over the use and legality of America's military might.
Republican and Democratic senators emerged from a classified briefing Friday largely backing Trump's swift show of force against Syrian strongman President Bashar al-Assad for using of chemical weapons in an attack this week on his own people.
But debate swirled over what the US commander-in-chief's next step will or should be and whether Thursday's strike on the Syrian air base had legal justification.
It is the constant wrangling between an executive that wants to respond forcefully -- and sometimes impulsively -- to the latest military challenge, and a legislative branch that holds the power to declare war.
"It's critical under our system of government that these types of actions have congressional approval, because they are acts of war," House Republican Justin Amash told reporters.
"And what begins as a set of strikes on one night can quickly escalate into a much broader conflict."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said the White House has no grand plan -- at least not yet -- for deeper engagement in Syria.
"If there's going to be a longer term engagement, no question" that a new authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) would have to pass Congress, he said.
"But I don't think there's any sense of that (expanded engagement) occurring right now."
Senator John McCain, a national security hawk who has advocated a tougher posture on Syria for years, said a broader strategy was indeed in the making.
"We expect to hear that completed strategy very soon," he said, while stressing he did not believe the White House was seeking a new AUMF.
The last time Congress declared war was in 1942. Since then, presidents have unilaterally launched military operations under their constitutional authority as commander-in-chief.
After the Vietnam War, lawmakers passed the War Powers Resolution, aimed at checking a president's power to engage in conflict and requiring congressional authorization if hostilities lasted more than 60 days.
Several US presidents have sidestepped the law, including Bill Clinton in Kosovo in 1999.
Then came 9/11.
Congress passed an AUMF in the days after the 2001 attacks. It gave George W. Bush sweeping authority to invade Afghanistan and pursue Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which aided the terrorists who attacked the United States.
But critics say the authorization emboldened US forces under Bush and his presidential successor Barack Obama.
It opened the door to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, attacks on Libya, a mission in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and the use of drones to kill terror suspects including US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
- 'Unlawful' -
Senator Angus King, an independent who mostly sides with Democrats, and who has called for a new AUMF, said today's situation in Syria is far removed from the 2001 authority.
"This is different because this is an attack on a regime, not on ISIL (the Islamic State), and that really takes it even further out from under the 2001 AUMF," King said.
War-weary lawmakers debated a possible new AUMF in 2013, when Obama mulled military strikes against Assad, but it never received a vote. The situation changed course and a deal was struck with Russia on removing Syria's chemical weapons.
With the horrific return of such weapons against innocent civilians in Syria, and US missiles fired, lawmakers may once more develop the appetite to hash out a new military authorization.
Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee last year, said Assad must now be held to account, "but President Trump has launched a military strike against Syria without a vote of Congress."
He said lawmakers "will work with the president, but his failure to seek congressional approval is unlawful."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled there was little urgency on the matter, as Congress fled Washington for a two-week Easter recess.
"If the president can think of some AUMF that he thinks will strengthen his hand, I will take a look at it," he told reporters Friday.