Obama tasks Congress with Syria vote: ‘We should have this debate’

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As the world braced for imminent action, President Obama announced on Saturday that he had decided to seek Congressional approval before carrying out military action in Syria to punish and deter alleged chemical weapons use.

“After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama announced from the White House Rose Garden Saturday.

“But having made my decision..I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

The stunning decision, carried live by Syrian State television, was reportedly made by the president only on Friday evening, just hours after the White House released a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment laying out the evidence of the August 21 nerve gas attack, and Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a call for action.

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry said at the State Department Friday.

Indeed, most of Obama’s national security cabinet reportedly only learned of Obama’s reversal at a White House meeting Saturday morning, during which some of them were said to have argued against it. Among other reasons, because Congress is on recess until September 9th. But Obama stood firm, and as Kerry said on Sunday, he’s the president.

The White House on Saturday submitted a proposed draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria to Congress. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said he would convene the Senate to consider the authorization on Wednesday (Sept. 4). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), however, said he would not call the House back into session early from recess, and House members would consider the motion following their return September 9th.

President Obama reserved the right to act even if Congress votes against the measure– but he did not explicitly vow to do so.

“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, said. “We should have this debate.”

Passage of the legislation is by no means a sure thing, however, especially in the Republican controlled House. Polls have showed the American public by and large reluctant to get militarily involved in Syria, although an NBC News poll last week showed 50% of the country would support ship-based missile strikes to punish chemical weapons use in Syria.

But there was speculation Sunday that the Obama administration may get some help lobbying Congress to vote for the measure from pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC, which like Israel, has seen Obama’s willingness to act on his Syria red line as an important message to be received by Iran over its nuclear program.

“Until there is a significant U.S. response that will deter further Syrian use of chemical weapons, Israel will see this as a reflection of American impotence,” Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, told Bloomberg News Sunday.

(Photo: President Barack Obama meets in the Situation Room with his national security advisors to discuss strategy in Syria, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)