But they’re not exactly demanding that President Barack Obama stand down from launching airstrikes in the country. Like many Republican lawmakers, they want Congress to authorize any military action there and are urging the administration to allow a healthy debate on the proper U.S. role — if any — in the dangerous country. But their criticism, at this point, falls short of total condemnation.
The anti-war Democrats are just organizing and starting to gain steam. Many of them admitted they’re likely to gather more force after a potential attack occurs instead of before it.
“There is ferment out there — you just haven’t seen it yet,” said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). “If they fire rockets in there, you’ll see a lot of people saying this is an absolute mistake, they should not have done it, I do not support it. The storm will follow if [Obama] goes without having the backing of the Congress.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) on Wednesday circulated a letter among liberal Democrats — 12 have signed on so far — that asked Obama to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress prior to committing any U.S. military engagement to this complex crisis.”
“Let’s be clear that the letter is calling for a specific action: debate,” said Lee, a former co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Congress must assert our authority on this issue; that’s a bipartisan cause.”
Aside from Lee’s letter, there has been little coordination among anti-war Democrats who oppose the Syrian action. Part of their caution could be a desire to wait out the consequences of a U.S. attack and see how successfully it’s carried out before condemning it.
“Most members of Congress of both parties would prefer to sit it out,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). “If the president does well, they can say, ‘Gee we were there with him.’ If the president doesn’t do well, they can say, ‘We were against it.’”
Congressional Democrats were “incredibly critical of the Bush administration and the run-up to Iraq,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.). “I think there is a high bar to be passed here, and I think there needs to be a strong voice.”
Democrats, he said, have been too meek in challenging Obama on the merits of his case for attacking Syria after allegations that President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against citizens.
“I wish folks would be a little more vocal in asking for this,” he said. “We have to challenge the administration. If we’re being true to who we are, it is about the constitutional responsibility of the House and it should not matter who is the occupant of the White House.”
Right now, the loudest voices condemning possible airstrikes have come from Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia on Tuesday has collected more than 110 signatures from Democrats and Republicans for a letter urging Obama to seek congressional authorization before attacking Syria.
“The war in Syria has no clear national security connection to the United States and victory by either side will not necessarily bring into power people friendly to the United States,” Paul said Wednesday.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said he hasn’t consulted with colleagues about how best to oppose attacks in Syria.
“It’s a fact that its difficult sometimes to criticize a president who belongs to your party,” Grayson said. “That certainly is true and my feeling is that I never swore allegiance to the president, I swore to uphold the Constitution.”
Grayson, who said responding to Syrian atrocities is not in the U.S. national interest, said it’s likely that congressional Democrats will become more vocal about the Syria attacks after they take place. Having a strong opinion about it now, he said, would require more research than most of his colleagues are able to do over the August recess.
“Members of Congress typically don’t take the time to examine the evidence independently,” Grayson said. “It’s probably asking a little bit too much to ask every member of Congress to examine all of the information.”
Instead what’s happened is anti-war Democrats are demanding Obama seek their authorization.
“Calling for the Congress to meet and to act doesn’t presuppose what the conclusion will be,” said Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). “Put me down as a skeptic, but in fairness, I would listen and give the kind of thorough consideration that such a question deserves.”
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) said Obama’s White House is “getting ready to overstep its authority right now” and that Congress has “ceded way too much authority to presidents.”