POSTED: Sunday, September 1, 2013 - 12:06pm
UPDATED: Monday, September 2, 2013 - 10:25am
(CNN) — Lawmakers were divided Sunday on whether to support President Barack Obama's call for military action in Syria.
Obama announced Saturday he believes the United States should take limited action, but he pledged to seek approval from Congress first.
Supporters of a military strike said Sunday the U.S. must send a message to Syria and other countries that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Opponents argued the U.S. should pursue more diplomatic channels rather than position itself in yet another overseas military conflict.
The split does not simply fall along with party lines. Some lawmakers support the president's decision to come to Congress, while others are bothered he did not act more quickly. Others who are undecided said they want to see a clear plan of action for taking out Bashar Al-Assad, while some are more likely to be on board if the president can build a broader coalition.
The White House is already working to present its case to lawmakers. Members of Congress will get a classified briefing on Syria Sunday afternoon, and Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham -- two powerful Republicans on the Armed Services Committee--are headed to the White House on Monday.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced Sunday the U.S. has evidence that sarin gas was used in Syria, said on CNN he's confident Congress "will do the right thing."
Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia stressed Sunday that partisan gridlock has nothing to with the division over what to do with Syria.
"Party does not have anything to do with this," he said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I really believe that. Maybe that's some American idealism coming out of me, but I've not heard one member of my Republican conference mention anything about partisanship here."
That sentiment was evident Sunday as a number of lawmakers gave varying reasons for their decision to support or oppose action in Syria.
Rep. Adam Smith, a top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, was skeptical that launching strikes against Assad's regime would do anything to deter him or anyone else from using chemical weapons in the future. He pointed to the death of Saddam Hussein as an example.
"If this is going to send a signal to dictators that you can't do that, here we are not too many years later (after Hussein's ouster) and Assad is using chemical weapons," he said on CNN. While the arguments for action in Syria are "compelling," Smith would not commit to a "yes" or "no" vote.
His fellow Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said he would readily vote "yes" if the vote were held today, saying "the whole world is watching."
"My God, we're the United States of America, and we have to stand for something," he told CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger. "If we're not going to stand up to a thug like Assad and say we're not going to let you gas your own people and commit war crimes, then who are we as a nation? I think we need to stand up and clearly say this is unacceptable."
McCain said he doesn't know how Congress will vote, nor does he know how he will vote until the White House presents a strategy to topple the Assad regime, rather than taking punitive steps.
Speaking to CBS' "Face the Nation" McCain said he and others "will be wanting a strategy, a plan, rather than just launching cruise missiles and that's it."
The 2008 GOP presidential nominee has been one of the leading voices in the Senate in favor of U.S. action in Syria. He said Obama has called him and Graham for a meeting at the White House Monday to talk about the situation.
"The best way is to eliminate the threat of Bashar Al-Assad's continued use of chemical weapons -- and, by the way, we know he's used them numerous times before - would be the threat of his removal from power," McCain said.
He disagrees with the notion that seeking congressional approval at this stage sends a strong message, saying the president could have taken action on his own earlier if he wanted to.
"But at the eleventh hour, when the strikes--leaks have been massive and unprecedented--are already planned, we know what ships are there, we know how many missiles...then a reversal at this point, I think, has serious consequences," he said, speaking of the risk of a possible "no" vote from Congress.
Kerry defended the president's decision to seek authorization from Congress before taking military action, saying the move will make the United States "stronger in the end" should the country decide to move forward with a strike.
"It's amazing to me to see people suddenly standing up and taking such affront at the notion that Congress ought to weigh in," he said on CNN. "I mean, I can hear the complaints that would have taken place if the president proceeded unilaterally and people say, 'Well why didn't you take the time to consult?'"
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he believes Congress "will rise to the occasion" and recognize the situation is a "national security issue."
"This isn't about Barack Obama versus the Congress. This isn't about Republicans against Democrats. This has a very important worldwide reach," the Michigan Republican said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Describing the evidence as "convincing," Rogers said "it is hard to walk away from the information that is on the table and not come to the conclusion that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons."
Some critics argue the president's decision to involve Congress shows a lack of leadership and that he's simply shifting the responsibility to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But Rogers said it's the constitutional role of Congress to provide for national defense.
"Why shouldn't Congress share in the responsibility? If you believe in the War Powers Act, which I do, if you believe in the constitution of the United States that firmly puts in the first article the responsibility for Congress to provide for the general defense, that means we're involved in this discussion--and we should be," he said.
Rogers said the U.S. needs to make it clear to North Korea and Iran that it won't accept the use or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"If you don't send that message, that has real world consequences. This isn't a reality TV show.
At the end of the day, something will actually happen. People will lose their lives. Nations will make a decision moving forward on chemical and biological weapons based on what we do here," he said.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island agreed the president "made the right decision" to consult Congress.
"He was very clear that he had not decided on final military action, and then I think he rightfully recognized that in the long run he, the country and the world would be stronger if Congress was supportive of his activities, because this is not just a short term effort, this is a longer term effort," Reed said on "Fox News Sunday."
But fellow Republican Rep. Peter King of New York said the president has been sending "mixed signals" over last 10 days, and his decision to seek input from Congress is a "clear failure of leadership."
"If you feel so strongly about it and if he doesn't want to take the action himself then he should call us back into session tomorrow," King said on "Fox News Sunday." If the vote were held today, King predicted House Republicans would vote "no" over taking military action, though he said he personally would vote "yes."
Congress returns from recess on September 9, but some are calling for lawmakers to come back earlier for a special session so a decision can be made sooner. Rep. Adam Schiff, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, urged House Speaker John Boehner to reconvene the House given "the gravity of the situation in Syria."
"Now that the President has called for a vote on a new authorization to use force, it is all the more essential that we be called back into session immediately," he said Saturday in a statement.
Some lawmakers have cited President Ronald Reagan and President Clinton as former commanders-in-chief who acted without asking for congressional approval, saying Obama certainly has the right to do so.
As a former senator, however, Obama was clear on how he felt about the 1973 War Powers Resolution, a law requires the president to seek consent from Congress before force is used or within 60 days of the start of hostilities.
Obama criticized President George W. Bush for not obtaining renewed authorization for the war in Iraq. And as a candidate for president, Obama reaffirmed his stance, telling the Boston Globe in a questionnaire that "it is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action."
But the president did not seek consent from lawmakers when the U.S. engaged militarily in Libya, nor when Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan. In both instances, members of Congress complained loudly, but the president defended his decision.
While Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky applauded the president's decision to have Congress weigh in on the Syria issue, he strongly disagreed with the idea of taking military action in the country, saying the situation is too complicated.
"I think the war may escalate out of control and then we have to ask ourselves, who is on America's side over there," Paul said. "If the rebels win will they be America's ally?"
Paul said the Obama administration should engage more effectively with China and Russia, two of Syria's closest allies.
"I think the best outcome for all the major powers would be a peaceful transition in government and Russia could influence that if they told Assad, 'No more weapons," Paul said.
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas announced Saturday he also will not support military action.
"America cannot afford another conflict that taxes our resources without achieving goals that advance American interests," he said in a statement.
Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, meanwhile, said he doesn't think Congress will approve the president's request and pointed to a weakened U.S. military and potential escalation of violence as major reasons not to intervene in Syria.
"This could be a war in the Middle East," he said Sunday on Fox.