A letter to President Obama from Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) demanding that Congress have a say gathered 140 signatures – a third of all House members – including 21 Democrats, propelling the second-term back-bencher to national prominence.
Tea Party leaders in the Senate have also been out front. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Obama's interest in “saving face” wasn't “enough reason to go to war.” And a tweet from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) calling it “unacceptable” that the British Parliament would have a vote but not Congress got retweeted more than 2,500 times.
“Why don't Pres Obama & leaders in Washington want Congress to vote on attacking Syria? Because the vote would fail,” tweeted Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), another congressman who rode into Congress on the Tea Party wave of 2010.
The talk of war in Syria has offered Tea Party lawmakers a unique chance to position themselves as the voice of reason on national security – with potential benefits for Paul should he run for president in 2016.
Previously, much of the Tea Party's focus on foreign policy had been cutting aid to countries such as Pakistan and Egypt, a stance most Americans support. The issue is a low priority for voters, however, leaving aid critics to be drowned out by the foreign policy establishment as radical kooks who would put U.S. national security at risk.
The crisis in Syria, coming on the heels of revelations of massive spying by the government, offers the Tea Party a chance to make foreign policy a winning issue, advocates say.
“In Syria, it's very difficult to find an American interest,” said Sal Russo, the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, the nation's largest Tea Party political action committee. “That's what hits the nerve within the general Tea Party – excessive use of the president's power.”
Russo predicted that unilateral action by the president in Syria would trigger more public backlash than the bombing campaign in Libya two years ago, where Obama had “more cover” because he had the support of NATO and a broad swath of the international community.
The Tea Party's early and vocal criticism on Syria strikes, Russo said, should help a Paul candidacy by attracting young voters who may have previously thought that “Republicans are always ready to support any military action anywhere.” Add the reluctance of many Democrats to criticize a sitting president of their party despite any personal misgivings they may have, he said, and Paul has become the leading political voice setting limits on U.S. military intervention.
“There have to be limits on what we can do,” Russo said. “I think that certainly enhances his position.”
While President Obama remains unlikely to seek congressional approval, the backlash from lawmakers has forced the administration to repeatedly promise to keep Congress and the public in the loop.
“I will continue to consult closely with Congress,” Obama said Friday after releasing an intelligence assessment outlining the evidence that Bashar Assad's forces killed 1,429 people with poison gas last week. “In addition to the release of the unclassified document, we are providing a classified briefing to congressional staff today.
“And we'll offer that same classified briefing to members of Congress as well as our international partners. And I will continue to provide updates to the American people as we get more information.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), while stopping short of demanding that Congress be called back, has called on the president to answer 14 pointed questions about his long-term strategy. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told The Hill that the speaker's letter to Obama, sent a few days after Rigell launched his effort, had nothing to do with Tea Party pressure.
“It had been in the works for a few days,” Steel said, “in response to the Speaker's own concerns and those of many other members - and, most importantly, the American people.”