Dems want Trump’s Syria strategy

Dems want Trump’s Syria strategy
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

House Democrats are pressing the Trump administration to provide a strategy to Congress on the conflict in Syria following last week’s missile strike.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders backed the missile strike on a Syrian airfield, which Trump initiated as a direct response to a deadly chemical attack on civilians days before. 

Democrats are also warning that they’ll withhold their support for future military actions unless the administration gets Congress’s stamp of approval.

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“On Syria, the two main points are clear: President Trump must come to Congress before taking any further military action against the Assad regime and he must put forward a comprehensive strategy to resolve the crisis in Syria,” Pelosi said in a letter to Democrats after a conference call on the topic Tuesday.

Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, drilled down on the point. 

“It’s his obligation to come forward with a strategy, and short of that, I certainly will not support any further strikes or any kind of military moves until the president involves Congress [and] until we can give him the authorization,” Engel said by phone after the caucus discussion.

The minority Democrats are powerless when it comes both to forcing Trump’s hand and bringing an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to a vote in the Republican-controlled chamber. 

But encouraged by recent polls, they’re hoping to bring the issue to the forefront of congressional debate, all but daring GOP leaders to punt on the thorny constitutional topic of who pulls the levers on matters of war and peace.

“If they don’t agree, then it’s up to us to point out what they’ve done,” Engel said. “They would once again be diminishing the role of Congress.” 

Tuesday’s conference call, announced by Pelosi in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent late Monday night, was designed to gauge Democratic concerns over the strikes and get party lawmakers on the same page ahead of that debate.

Trump’s foray into Syria Thursday has reignited a question that’s hung over the Pentagon’s involvement in the Middle East for years: How much power does the president have to use military force without Congress’s explicit approval?

After 9/11, in the name of fighting terrorism, Congress approved a pair of AUMFs. But roughly 15 years later the Democrats are amplifying their warnings that those measures are outdated and no longer cover the expanded fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), which has shifted to war-torn Syria.

“The 2001 AUMF which they’re operating under applies to al Qaeda and it’s been stretched to apply to ISIS. … But [it] does not apply to Syria, it does not apply to [Bashar] Assad,” Engel said, referring to the Syrian president. “It’s really apples and oranges.”

Pelosi has urged Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHouse vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King House passes resolution condemning white nationalism Anti-Defamation League calls on House leaders to censure Steve King over white supremacy comments MORE (R-Wis.) to launch an immediate debate over an updated AUMF by reconvening the House, which is in the midst of a two-week recess. Ryan has refused, but Pelosi’s focus on the issue early this week is an indication that the Democrats intend to put the constitutional separation-of-powers debate front and center when the recess ends.

“When Congress returns, we must be ready to do our duty to honor our constitutional responsibility as we debate the use or not of force,” Pelosi wrote Monday night in a note to House Democrats.

To be sure, there are some divisions within the party over the recent missile strike. Most Democrats, like Pelosi and Engel, have supported Trump’s decision as an appropriate response to the chemical attacks. A second group of anti-war liberals has condemned the strikes as unconstitutional because the president didn’t get Congress’s approval beforehand. And Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardOpenly gay lawmaker defends Gabbard over past LGBT comments Moulton to visit New Hampshire amid 2020 speculation The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s attorney general pick passes first test MORE (D-Hawaii), an Iraq War veteran, has denounced the offensive for a lack of evidence that Assad was behind the chemical attack.

“There is a reason our Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war: We should be shown the evidence and given the opportunity to debate the strategy and sacrifice expected,” Gabbard told The Hill this week.

Still, the Democrats appear to be united when it comes to empowering Congress over the fate of potential strikes in the future. 

“Those are the usual differences,” Engel said. “Democrats, virtually unanimously, would approve” of demanding a new AUMF to govern the next steps.

It’s unclear if Ryan and the Republicans are willing to go along. Under then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouse vote fails to quell storm surrounding Steve King House passes resolution condemning white nationalism GOP leaders strip Steve King of committee assignments MORE (R-Ohio), Republicans had pressed former President Obama for congressional authorization surrounding his military operations targeting ISIS, but they balked at Obama’s proposal and never offered an alternative. 

Ryan last year had also explored the idea of moving an ISIS-specific AUMF, but it was never passed. 

In the wake of last week’s missile strike, the Speaker is encouraging Trump “to consult with Congress as it considers next steps to resolve the long-running crisis in Syria,” his office said last week. But it remains unclear if such a consultation would involve consideration of a new AUMF.

Ryan’s office did not respond Tuesday to a request for clarification.