WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to “immediately” call the House back into session and debate whether to authorize the use of force in Syria.
“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 the letter sent Friday morning. “The American people are owed a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives to keep our brave men and women in uniform safe and avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians in Syria.”
Congress is about to embark on a two-week recess, when Washington empties out and many members of Congress return to their home districts. That could mean the debate over President Trump’s decision to launch dozens of cruise missiles into Syria on Thursday night in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons — and whatever potentially happens next — could be put on hold until late April.
The Authorization of the Use of Military Force, or AUMF in D.C. jargon, means congressional approval for using military force against another nation. Presidents don’t always seek this before taking military action, however. Former President Barack Obama never secured congressional authority for his war on the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS. His administration at first argued that, because that terrorist army began as an offshoot of al-Qaida, the 2001 AUMF covering the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks also covered the conflict with ISIS. He later sought an AUMF but failed for largely political reasons, with Democrats uneasy about the document’s deliberately vague restrictions on ground troops and Republicans refusing to sign on to Obama’s strategy.
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Members of Congress can often be wary of voting either way on war, since the long-term political fallout of those votes can be grave. Hillary Clinton, for example, was still defending her 2002 vote for the Iraq War during her 2016 campaign.
Ryan spokesman Doug Andres said in a statement that Thursday night’s attack did not need Congress’ sign off but that the president should consult with Congress on any future action in Syria.
“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,” Andres said. “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.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a press conference Friday that the strike was a limited retaliation for Assad’s use of chemical weapons and will not necessarily lead to additional action. He said there were no plans to alter the Senate’s two-week recess to debate an AUMF.
It’s unclear if other Democrats will back Pelosi’s call. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., released a statement Thursday night asking Trump to “consult” with Congress about a larger strategy in Syria, but he did not specifically mention an AUMF or a timeline. “It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a strategy and consult with Congress before implementing it,” Schumer said.
Some longtime proponents of seeking congressional authorization for war on both sides of the aisle have demanded Trump seek their approval. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Trump must receive Congress’s buy-in for strikes on foreign nations. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also called on Trump to get congressional approval.
— Olivier Knox contributed to this report.
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