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Illinois congressional members to Obama: We get a say in this

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster

U.S. Rep. Bill Foster

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Updated: October 1, 2013 6:46AM



WASHINGTON — Illinois lawmakers from both parties are calling on President Barack Obama to consult with Congress before ordering military strikes in Syria even as there may be support for taking action after reports Syrian civilians were attacked with chemical weapons.

Democratic Rep. Bill Foster reflects where many members of Congress are at this stage, with the White House yet to present to most rank-and-file lawmakers the “smoking gun” evidence that gassing did take place and was ordered by Syria’s government.

Foster’s position is that “for nearly 100 years, the use of chemical weapons has been a red line that civilized countries have agreed not to cross. The use of chemical weapons in Syria represents an unacceptable precedent, and the international community must respond appropriately.”

But Foster, a physicist, “believes before we take any action, it is critical that we gather all the facts about what has happened and who is responsible.”

“While limited air strikes, conducted as part of an international coalition, may ultimately be an appropriate response, there should be no significant commitment of U.S. troops without congressional debate and approval,” Foster spokesman Megan Jacobs told me on Thursday.

The Obama team, pressing for military action, is facing challenges in rallying support from two important constituencies: the international community and Congress, where the GOP controls the House and the Democrats run the Senate.

Congress has been off for weeks on a summer recess, with the House and Senate returning Sept. 9. As Obama seems to be closer to taking military action, congressional calls for consultations are growing louder as members return from vacations.

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Rep. Bill Enyart (D-Ill.) were part of a group of more than a hundred lawmakers — most Republican — who sent Obama a letter on Wednesday saying a congressional vote before the use of U.S. military force in Syria is required by the Constitution and subsequent laws.

“Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.”

The letter noted that Obama sidestepped Congress in 2011 when he ordered bombings in Libya without permission of Congress based on the argument that the U.S. was not engaged in “hostilities.”

“If the use of 221 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 704 joint direct attack munitions and 42 Predator Hellfire missiles expended in Libya does not constitute ‘hostilities,’ what does,” the letter signed by Hultgren, Lipinski and Enyart asked.

Obama was sent another letter on Thursday, this one crafted and signed by Democrats, including Illinois Democratic Reps. Robin Kelly, Danny Davis, Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky. While the tone was less confrontational than the GOP-authored letter, the bottom line message to Obama was the same: Don’t act without Congress.

“While we understand that as commander in chief you have a constitutional obligation to protect our national interests from direct attack, Congress has the constitutional obligation and power to approve military force if the United States or its direct interests [such as its embassies] has not been attacked or threatened with an attack,” the Democratic-authored letter said.

“As such, we strongly urge you to seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.”

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) is part of House Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team; Boehner on Wednesday sent Obama a letter asking for a U.S. strategic plan on Syria, including the standard used to determine use of chemical weapons.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is the most hawkish member of the Illinois delegation so far when it comes to Syria, calling for Navy cruise missile strikes, the Quad-Cities Times reported on Monday.

“My hope is to find the military unit that possibly was involved and hit their headquarters to cause a direct price for gassing civilians,” he said. “I think there needs to be consequences.”

As for needing congressional authorization, Kirk “believes it’s always best to get congressional approval,” his spokesman, Lance Trover, told me on Thursday.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the assistant majority leader and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense was among the 15 members getting a 90-minute briefing Thursday night from administration National Security officials.

Durbin has not yet taken a position, but has a long-held position that Congress needs to be consulted when it comes to military force.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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