Kerry: Obama Has Not Told Me What He Will Do If Congress Does Not Authorize Syria Strike

By Patrick Goodenough | September 4, 2013 | 4:34 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry shows frustration during questioning from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) at Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. At left is Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry says President Obama has not told him what he will do if Congress does not vote in favor of a military strike in Syria, but reiterated the president’s assertion that he does not need congressional authorization before initiating action.

“What will happen if the Congress says no, and does authorize this strike, this use of force? What will the president do?” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) asked Kerry during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria.

“Well, I can’t tell you what the president’s going to do because he hasn’t told me,” he said. “But 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 added.

“But I’ll tell you what will happen, where it matters. In Pyongyang, in Tehran, in Damascus, folks will stand up and celebrate. And in a lot of other capitals in parts of the world people will scratch their heads, and sign a sort of condolence for the loss of America’s willingness to stand up and make itself felt where it makes a difference to the world,” he said.

“I think it would be an enormous setback to America’s capacity and to our vision in the world, and certainly the role of leadership that we play.”

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted that after Britain’s House of Commons voted down a measure on participating in military action against Damascus, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to respect the will of the British people.

“Where does President Obama stand with that, now that he has come to Congress?”

“He intends to win the passage of the resolution,” Kerry replied.

And if he does not? Barrasso wanted to know.

“Well we’re not contemplating not, because it’s too dire,” Kerry said.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told Kerry he had been “pleasantly surprised” and on the verge of applauding Obama for saying he would take the Syrian issue to Congress – “and then I heard, well if I lose the vote, I’ll probably go ahead and do the bombing anyway.”

“I want to be proud of the president, but every time I’m just about there, then I get word that really he doesn’t mean it, that he’s going to sort of obey the constitution – if he wins.”

Paul challenged Kerry to tell the committee that if the measure is voted down – “which is unlikely by the way” – then the administration would not go ahead.

“I can’t give you a different answer than the one I gave you,” Kerry said. “I don’t know what the president’s decision is. But I will tell you this. It ought to make you proud because he still has the constitutional authority and he would be in keeping with the constitution.”

Paul said he disagreed, citing James Madison’s writings in the Federalist Papers and elsewhere.

“If we do not say that the constitution applies,” he continued, “if we do not say explicitly that we will abide by this vote, you’re making a joke of us. You’re making us into theater. And so we play constitutional theater for the president. If this is real you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You’re probably going to win – just go ahead and say it’s real.”

Kerry, visibly frustrated, replied: “I will leave to the man who was elected to be president of the United States the responsibility for telling you what his decision is if and when that moment came. But the president intends to win this vote, and he’s not going to make a prior announcement.”

Several Democrats on the committee agreed, directly or implicitly, that the constitution does require the president to seek congressional use-of-force authorization.

“I also believe with others that the constitution reserves the power to initiate military action to Congress,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “I applaud the president for doing it.”

“We need to come to a consensus, then execute on that consensus, whatever it is,” he said. “And it would be my hope that Congress’ consensus would then be what the president would do – and not otherwise.”

“I salute the president for respecting the constitution and giving us that responsibility,” said Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

During his 2008 campaign for the White House, then-Sen. Obama responded to a Boston Globe questionnaire query about bombing Iran without seeking congressional authorization by stating that “the president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

“In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent,” candidate Obama said. “History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow