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Congress Wants to Hear Trump’s Syria Policy — and Fast

Members say Trump needs to consult them before taking any more action

The top Democrats on Capitol Hill, Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, both advocate a role for Congress in future actions in Syria by the Trump administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The top Democrats on Capitol Hill, Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, both advocate a role for Congress in future actions in Syria by the Trump administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle say they are waiting to hear President Donald Trump’s plan for his next step in Syria.

Many lawmakers — including some of Trump’s most vocal critics — offered support in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airbase Thursday night. But they said Trump needs to consult Congress before he takes any more steps.

“As we move forward, it will be important for the administration to engage with Congress and clearly communicate its full strategy to the American people,” said Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Both Republicans and Democrats said the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack that killed almost 100 civilians called for a swift and powerful response. But they said the administration should follow up on its action with a new strategy toward Syria and its authoritarian President Bashar Assad — and that Congress should be consulted as part of that process. Some clarity may come soon.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday morning that the entire Senate would be briefed on the situation later in the day. A senior GOP aide said that meeting would happen at 1 p.m.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appealed to Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Friday to call Congress back in session to debate further action. House members left Thursday for a two-week recess.

McConnell said Friday morning he believed Trump had full authority to conduct the strikes without seeking approval from Congress.

“It was perfectly executed and for the right purpose,” the Kentucky Republican told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I support totally what the president did, a precision strike to make it clear to Assad that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable behavior.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer also said the strike was the proper response.

“Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities, he will pay a price is the right thing to do,” the New York Democrat said.

But he added that Congress needs to be involved in the conversation.

“It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a strategy and consult with Congress before implementing it,” Schumer said.

A similar message came from a few leading Republicans.

“This action was appropriate and just,” Ryan said in a statement. “These tactical strikes make clear that the Assad regime can no longer count on American inaction as it carries out atrocities against the Syrian people.”

The speaker added that resolving the crisis in Syria is a “complex task.”

“I look forward to the administration further engaging Congress in this effort,” he said.

Pelosi, though, told Ryan in a letter Friday that the action in Syria was unlikely to be limited to one air strike, and that Congress needs to be engaged as soon as possible.

“As heartbreaking as Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on his own people was, the crisis in Syria will not be resolved by one night of airstrikes,” she wrote. “The killing will not stop without a comprehensive political solution to end the violence. 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.”

House Intelligence ranking member Adam B. Schiff told MSNBC on Friday that he received a call from Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, “not long after the missiles were on their way.” The California Democrat said he did not think the administration intended to wage a continued attack, but that it would depend, in part, on whether the regime responds against U.S. troops, targets or allies.

“But it is obviously a very abrupt change of course by the administration from just a few days ago when they said, basically, it’s up to the Syrian people to decide who will remain the leader of Syria as if the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah weren’t involved,” Schiff said, adding that the administration should not make this a military effort to change the Syrian government. 

Schiff said Congress needs to determine whether the strike was legal, and that none of what the U.S. is doing in Syria is authorized. 

“Congress really needs to deal with this,” he said.

Praise for the U.S. strike came from some of Trump’s biggest critics in his own party.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called it “an important, decisive step.”

“It is not a message,” he told CNN on Thursday night. “It is an actual degrading of the capability of the Syrian regime to carry out further chemical attacks against innocent civilians. This will degrade their capability to launch those attacks from the air, and I think it was [an] important step and hopefully it’s part of a comprehensive strategy moving forward to bring to a close this chaos that is happening in Syria.”

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both defense hawks, called the strike a “first step,” in what should be a “new, comprehensive strategy” to end the conflict in Syria.

“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action,” they said. “For that, he deserves the support of the American people.”

But some lawmakers criticized the administration for circumventing them.

“While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked,” Sen. Rand Paul said on Twitter.

“The president needs congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution, and I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different.”

Michigan GOP Rep. Justin Amash, a member of both the House Freedom and Liberty caucuses, pointed out that air strikes are an act of war.

“Atrocities in Syria cannot justify departure from the Constitution, which vests in Congress power to commence war,” Amash tweeted.

California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee pointed out that she was the only lawmaker in the House to vote against the 2001 authorization for military force, which Congress passed in the days after the 9/11 attacks.

That measure was designed to give President George W. Bush the power to use force to defend the U.S. against attacks and against those who sponsored them. The Obama administration argued that the authorization should apply in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, where U.S. forces were fighting terrorist organizations that the administration said were offshoots of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Trump’s decision to launch missiles in Syria is almost certain to revive debate over how broadly the measure applies.

McConnell, on Friday’s radio program, said he thought that Trump had the authority to act unilaterally in Syria under the measure.

The Kentucky Republican noted that former President Barack Obama believed action in the region could be covered under the 2001 and a later 2002 use of force authorizations.

“I expect this president thinks the same,” McConnell said.

But in a preview of the coming debate, Lee was not so certain.

“This is an act of war,” she tweeted. “Congress needs to come back into session & hold a debate. Anything less is an abdication of our responsibility.”

Lindsey McPherson, Bridget Bowman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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