Senators on Wednesday tried to write a tight resolution authorizing President Obama to strike Syria under very specific circumstances, but analysts and lawmakers said the language still has plenty of holes the White House could use to expand military action well beyond what Congress appears to intend.
“Wiggle room? Plenty of that,” said Louis Fisher, scholar in residence at the Constitution Project and former long-time expert for the Congressional Research Service on separation of powers issues.
Writing the actual language to empower and constrain Mr. Obama is proving to be a difficult task, with the key authors being pulled in various directions.
Some of the drafters’ colleagues want to give the president broad latitude for ongoing strikes that not only target Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, but also aids the rebels seeking to overthrow him. Other lawmakers, though, want the most limited of action — a strike designed only to make sure the Assad regime can’t deploy its chemical weapons again.
The resolution drafted by Sens. Robert Menendez and Bob Corker, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, grants Mr. Obama power “to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria” — but only in relation to that nation’s weapons of mass destruction.
The resolution puts a 60-day limit on Mr. Obama’s ability to conduct strikes, while allowing him one 30-day extension of that authority.
“Our negotiations have led to a much narrower authorization that provides for the appropriate use of force while limiting the scope and duration of military action, prohibiting boots on the ground, and requiring the Obama administration to submit their broader plan for Syria,” Mr. Corker said in a statement late Tuesday.
The committee was slated to meet at 11:30 Wednesday to amend and vote on the resolution, but it was delayed until 2 p.m., giving all sides more time to work on the measure.
Mr. Fisher said the language the senators used in their resolution was surprising.
“What could possibly be the meaning of ‘limited and tailored?’ I doubt if I’ve ever seen the word ‘tailored’ in a bill,” said Mr. Fisher, a veteran of four decades of studying legislation. “Even if the ‘intent’ of Congress is a limited war, war has its own momentum.”
Mr. Fisher pointed to the 1964 resolution that authorized a limited response to the Gulf of Tonkin, but that ended up being the start of an escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. Mr. Fisher said he wasn’t drawing a comparison, but said it was instructive to look at what Congress thought it was authorizing and what eventually developed.
Writing at blog Opinio Juris, Peter J. Spiro, a law professor at Temple University, said the 60-day/90-day framework in the Senate resolution seems designed specifically to impose the limits of the War Powers Resolution (WPR) on Mr. Obama, who evaded them during the 2011 Libya conflict by arguing the U.S. attacks on that nation weren’t “hostilities.”
“So the administration in effect would finds itself bound by the WPR framework that it and all other prior administrations have rejected. Doesn’t sound like a result that Obama should be happy about, a far cry from the open-ended broad authorization he requested over the weekend,” Mr. Spiro said.
He said given that, the Syria resolution, or Authorization for the Use of Military Force, could end up being a major turning point in the constitutional debate over the president’s war powers.