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As U.S. attacks Syria, Congress looks on cautiously and hopes for a quick conclusion

As U.S. attacks Syria, Congress looks on cautiously and hopes for a quick conclusion
President Trump speaks to the nation Friday night about military action in Syria. (Mike Theiler / Pool)

When President Obama considered launching airstrikes against Syria in August 2013 in retaliation for a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people, businessman Donald Trump strongly opposed U.S. intervention.

"We should stay the hell out of Syria," he tweeted at the time. He later added, "The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!"

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Obama never did order an attack. But as president, Trump now has ordered missile strikes twice against Syria — once last April and again Friday night — without any suggestion that he needs congressional approval. And many lawmakers on Capitol Hill seem content to leave it that way.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) praised the "decisive action" taken by the U.S., Britain and France against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"We are united in our resolve that Assad's barbaric use of chemical weapons cannot go unanswered," Ryan said in a statement. "His regime's unconscionable brutality against innocent civilians cannot be tolerated."

Trump had a free hand in large measure because Syria remains a vexing humanitarian, military and political crisis with no end in sight. Now in its eighth year, the multisided war has pulled in a half-dozen nations, including Russia, and it has scrambled partisan battle lines in Washington.

The predawn attack Saturday targeted three Syrian sites that the Pentagon said were used to research, produce or stockpile chemical agents. The attack did not threaten Assad's grip on power.

Some Republicans, and more Democrats, demanded Trump seek authority for future missile strikes from Congress, which under the Constitution and the 1973 War Powers Resolution is required to approve military action.

Congress last declared war in 1941. Since then, it has used resolutions to approve use of military force — or not. Obama canceled his planned airstrikes in 2013 because congressional leaders refused to call a vote to authorize the use of force.

The largest group of lawmakers offered tentative approval for the airstrike, mixed with caution, as they watch to see whether Trump launches a follow-up attack, or if the military response leads to further turmoil in the Middle East.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said he hopes the attack will end Assad's chemical weapons program "and dissuade him from ever pursuing them again." He carefully added, "I await a briefing on the scope and success of the mission."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and frequently jousts with Trump on foreign policy, was more blunt in suggesting that the White House needs to explain where it intends to go next.

"To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region," he tweeted.

But unusual contours of the war in Syria have created some odd alliances in Washington.

Hawkish conservatives favored the aggressive pushback against Assad. So did some liberals, who applauded the airstrikes as a way to stop the horrors of chemical weapons, which have become a grim feature of the Syrian civil war.

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But it also created another group of strange bedfellows — liberals and conservatives upset that Trump neglected to consult Congress.

An aide to Vice President Mike Pence said that he had called legislative leaders and alerted them shortly before the missiles began hitting their targets at 9 p.m. Friday in Washington. No formal approval was sought.

"President Trump's decision to launch military strikes against the Syrian regime — without congressional input or authorization — shows a contempt for the U.S Constitution and is without legal justification," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), one of the most liberal members of the House.

"I fully support all international accountability mechanisms to prosecute these war crimes and to negotiate a political solution to the war in Syria," she said. "But as we've seen over the last 16 years, we cannot bomb our way to peace."

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) criticized congressional leaders for not demanding that Trump seek approval from Congress. "These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless," he tweeted.

A total of 88 members of Congress from both parties wrote Trump on Friday to urge him to consult with legislators before taking action. To do otherwise, the letter said, violated the separation of powers outlined by the Constitution.

Neither Ryan nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanded that Trump seek congressional approval before further action.

On Thursday, after the president made clear he was nearing a decision, Ryan batted down suggestions that Trump should ask Congress to approve an authorization of military force, or AUMF.

The speaker said Trump could use existing authorization, which was approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It authorized use of force against anyone involved in those attacks or related forces, and has been used to justify U.S. military actions since then, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The last thing I want to see is an AUMF that makes it much more difficult for our military to respond to keep us safe, because they have the authority to do that right now," Ryan told reporters Thursday.

Democratic leaders were more critical.

"One night of airstrikes is not a substitute for a clear, comprehensive Syria strategy," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco. She said Trump must secure congressional authority by outlining "clear objectives that keep our military safe and avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said lawmakers bear some of the blame, noting that Congress has "willingly abdicated its role in approving or disproving military action."

"That must change," he said. "The risk of escalation with any military action in a country in which Russia, Iran and Turkey have deployed troops and proxies is far too great to leave to any executive acting on their own."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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