Congressional involvement debated in potential Syria strikes

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WASHINGTON, DC — What Congress needs to do in terms of signing off on a military strike in Syria or elsewhere is a subject of debate.

While only Congress can officially declare war, legislators have not taken that step since World War II. The conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were all fought without a formal declaration.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution — a response to Vietnam — gives a president 60 days after the start of a conflict to obtain congressional approval for sending U.S. forces to war, followed by a 30-day extension to end hostilities.

In the case of the 2011 Libyan intervention, the combined 90-day period ended without any congressional expression of support for America’s role in the NATO-led operation.

Administration officials argued at the time that President Barack Obama didn’t need congressional authorization because U.S. forces were only playing a supporting role in Libya, and hadn’t engaged in what the War Powers Resolution defines as hostilities.

The War Powers Resolution, however, also requires presidents to “consult” with Congress before engaging in military action. So has the Obama administration been consulting with Congress on a possible military strike in Syria?

Top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee have been briefed by the White House and Pentagon, a congressional source familiar with the briefings told CNN.

Details about who conducted the briefings and when they took place were not immediately available, but the source said one briefing took place at the White House while others were done over the phone.

However, a spokesman for the head of the House Armed Services Committee, California Rep. Buck McKeon, said the Republican chairman had not received a similar briefing.

“There has been no outreach from the Department of Defense to Chairman McKeon or the House Armed Services Committee since the suspected use of chemical weapons occurred last week,” McKeon spokesman Claude Chafin said.

House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Virginia, released a statement Monday calling on Obama “to consult Congress as prescribed by the War Powers Resolution.”

“Congress is not a potted plant in this process, and President Obama should call us back into emergency session before authorizing the use of any military force,” Rigell argued. “We stand ready to share the burden of decisions made regarding U.S. involvement.”

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insisted Monday that the White House has not reached members of Congress for consultation.

“The president is commander-in-chief. With that power comes obligations,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said in a written statement. “One, of course, is to consult with Congress on the options he sees as a viable response. This consultation has not yet taken place, but it is an essential part of the process. And meaningful consultation should happen before any military action is taken.”

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, did not respond to inquiries about whether they have been briefed.

House and Senate aides from both parties said lawmakers may want to vote on a still undefined resolution supporting a U.S. military response to the alleged chemical weapons attack. Aides said it was too early to know what the resolution would say.

At this point, it doesn’t appear a vote would happen until after the Congress returns to session, as scheduled, after Labor Day.

One Senate Democratic aide argued that as long as the president is not trying to commit troops to Syria, he does not need congressional authorization in advance to launch an attack on Syria.

“The law is pretty clear,” the aide told CNN. “The president has the authority to take a range of actions and then must notify Congress.”

By Alan Silverleib and Ted Barrett

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