WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) pressed Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday over the Obama administration's decision to seek congressional authorization to bomb Syria. Flake suggested that asking members of Congress to vote on military action was playing politics with foreign policy.
"How can we assure or tell our constituents that this isn't political when you come, when the administration comes to the Congress to ask for authorization to take action that the president clearly has said he has authority to take?" Flake asked Kerry.
Flake noted that the Obama administration intervened in Libya without an explicit up-or-down vote from Congress and implied that seeking congressional approval on Syria was simply an effort by the president to put Republicans on the spot.
"Well Senator Flake," Kerry responded. "It's somewhat surprising to me that a member of Congress, particularly one on the Foreign Relations Committee, is going to question the president fulfilling the vision of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution and divided power on foreign policy."
Kerry said that congressional approval would improve American unity and strengthen the international signal sent by a U.S. military strike on Syria.
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, and allows the executive branch the power to wage war and act in times of crisis. Since the 1960s, however, Congress has become increasingly marginalized when it comes to the use of military force.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been divided over whether to bomb Syria, although House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have endorsed military action.
An explicit Congressional vote forces members of Congress to put their policy positions on the record and raises the possibility they will be held publicly accountable for the course of American foreign policy. When President George W. Bush led the country into Iraq in 2003, Congress did not vote on a specific military action, but did vote on a resolution authorizing Bush to use military force against the Iraqi government. Flake voted in favor of the Iraq resolution.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) emphasized later in the hearing that being forced to vote on military action was one of "the most difficult" things lawmakers can do, before asking for assurances that a congressional authorization to strike would not turn into an open-ended military commitment akin to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flake further pressed Kerry on what the administration would do if Congress voted down a strike on Syria. Kerry said that he had not talked to Obama about what would happen if Congress bucked the administration, but argued that Obama still had the authority to take military action without congressional support.
"The president, as you know, retains the authority, always has the authority, had the authority to strike before coming to Congress and that doesn't change," Kerry said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected to that rationale.
"When I first heard that the president was gonna come to Congress, boy was I proud," Paul said. "And then I heard, 'But well, if I lose the vote I'll probably go ahead and do the bombing anyway' ... You're making a joke of us."
Kerry and Paul sparred over constitutional war powers, but Kerry eventually told Paul that Obama was asking members of Congress to "stand up and be counted" on their position on intervention in Syria.