Congress’ concern about Syria not just about checking executive power

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Aug. 1, 2013.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Congress’ attention to any potential military action in Syria is not just about checking executive war powers, it’s also about money.

Congress has been in a fierce budget slashing mode, but the White House probably would request additional funding for a military campaign against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Forces loyal to Assad are suspected of killing more than 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack on rebel strongholds around Damascus, the capital, on Aug. 21.

Budget issues are expected to be the top order of business when Congress returns from recess in September, and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) raised the question of military costs in a letter to President Obama this week. Several lawmakers echoed the concern on a conference call Thursday with top administration officials.

“Does the administration intend to submit a supplemental appropriations request to Congress, should the scope and duration of the potential military strikes exceed the initial planning?” Boehner asked.

The questions are not rhetorical in this era of fiscal constraint. House Republicans have shown they are unable to muster their majority to approve even the most routine bills to fund the general workings of government.


The concerns of deficit hawks could make it difficult for Boehner to round up the votes for extra defense-related spending. Liberal Democrats, already uneasy about military action, may not be inclined to lend their backing, especially after Democratic priorities, including funding for school lunches and other services for the poor, have been slashed under the Republican-controlled House majority.

Congressional aides declined on Friday to estimate the costs of a potential military campaign, which would depend on the size, scope and duration of any action initiated by the White House.

The Pentagon has already been stung by the steep budget cuts, known as sequester, that Congress put in place this year. House Republicans have been trying to undo the defense cuts by shifting them to other domestic programs, but Democrats and the White House reject that approach.

When lawmakers return to Washington on Sept. 9, their immediate task will be to pass legislation to fund the government by Sept. 30 or risk a federal shutdown. After that, they will need to raise the federal debt limit by mid-October so the Treasury Department can continue paying the nation’s accumulated bills.

The officials on Thursday’s conference call, which included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, acknowledged that such a funding request probably would be needed, according to aides familiar with the private briefing.

The guns-and-butter debate has long vexed lawmakers, even during relatively popular military campaigns. It may prove daunting with a less popular one.


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Twitter: @LisaMascaroinDC