President Obama arrives to make a statement about Syria in the Rose Garden… (Charles Dharapak Associated…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama abruptly announced that he would seek approval from a polarized Congress for missile strikes against Syria, stopping the clock for at least a week on what had loomed as an imminent attack for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Speaking Saturday in the Rose Garden shortly after consulting with congressional leaders, Obama said that he had made up his mind to take military action in response to this "assault on human dignity," but that the country needed to debate it.
"Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree," he said. "I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective."
In the days since the Aug. 21 attack on Damascus suburbs, White House officials had said they would not seek congressional approval, even as lawmakers turned up the volume on their calls for Obama to seek a vote.
Now, a potentially prolonged and difficult debate lies ahead, one that poses a clear risk of defeat for the president. Many newer lawmakers have never authorized the use of military force, and an unlikely alliance of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats is reluctant to do so. In the House, a new generation of GOP lawmakers leans more toward isolationism than the views of defense hawks.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also sought legislative backing for military action and suffered a stinging defeat in the House of Commons, putting America's most trusted ally on the sidelines.
Obama administration officials would not rule out going ahead with a military operation against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even if Congress does not authorize it. Like previous presidents, Obama argued that he did not need congressional approval.
"I'm ready to act in the face of this outrage," he said. "Today I'm asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced that he would call the Senate back early from its summer break for hearings this week and a vote on the resolution no later than the week after. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said his chamber would consider the issue as soon as lawmakers returned from their break Sept. 9.
The White House sent a proposed authorization to Boehner late Saturday. The resolution would authorize the president to use force "as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" to prevent the use and spread of weapons of mass destruction and protect the United States and its allies from the threats "posed by such weapons."
Under the Constitution, Congress has the sole power to declare war. The 1973 War Powers Resolution permits the president to take the country to war for as long as 90 days without congressional authorization.
But about 200 members of Congress signed letters in the last week calling on the president to seek a vote in Congress. Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who led one such effort, welcomed Obama's announcement, saying congressional votes would "reflect the collective wisdom and the definitive position of the American people."
On Saturday, Reid and a few other lawmakers issued statements strongly supporting a strike. "I believe the use of military force against Syria is both justified and necessary," Reid said.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said he would work with other leaders to pass a resolution "as expeditiously as possible," calling Assad's actions "searing to the soul and blinding to the eye." And Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the panel's ranking Republican and a supporter of military action, called on the president to use "every ounce of his energy to make his case to the American people."
But most other lawmakers were noncommittal. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said only that a congressional vote "would strengthen the president's decision to take military action." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed a similar sentiment.
In a twist, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who back military action, indicated they might vote against a resolution if it was too weak. "We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the president's stated goal of Assad's removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict," they said in a joint statement.