Last updated: August 30, 2013 2:54 am

Boehner says he needs more answers from Obama

John Boehner, Republican speaker of the House©Bloomberg

John Boehner, Republican House Speaker, said his questions about Barack Obama’s possible use of military action in Syria had not been answered following a personal briefing by the US president, highlighting how far the administration still needed to go to make its case.

A spokesman for Mr Boehner said “it is clear that further dialogue and consultation with Congress . . . will be needed”, following a phone call between the lawmaker and the president.

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He stopped short of insisting that Mr Obama seek congressional authorisation before a potential strike on Syria, although more than 100 Republican and Democratic legislators in the House are calling for such a vote.

The White House on Thursday night said the views of Congress were “important to the president’s decision making process” and vowed to continue to “engage” lawmakers as Mr Obama made a decision about the appropriate response to the alleged use of chemical weapons.

Members of Mr Obama’s cabinet, including defence secretary Chuck Hagel and secretary of state John Kerry, held an unclassified 90-minute phone call with 26 members of Congress to brief them on the administration’s thinking and seek their input on the US response to the attacks.

Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, said in a statement after the briefing that she agreed with calls by Mr Boehner for “more consultation” with Congress and greater transparency into decision making and timing.

“It is clear that the American people are weary of war. However, Assad gassing his own people is an issue of our national security, regional stability and global security,” she said. “On this evening’s call, I expressed my appreciation for the measured, targeted and limited approach the President may be considering.”

The White House was making its case amid concern on Capitol Hill about the rationale behind military action and its implications for US interests.

On a tumultuous day that saw the president’s top political and strategic ally, David Cameron, the UK prime minister, lose a critical vote in parliament, lawmakers in the US appeared far more concerned about the president’s objectives than whether the administration had sufficient evidence that chemical weapons were used.

“I haven’t heard what the mission is, but it seems to me that it has to be consequential,” said Robert Menendez, the New Jersey senator and senior Democrat on the foreign relations committee, in an interview on MSNBC.

Mr Menendez’s contention that the strike ought to send a “message” globally about US opposition to the use of chemical weapons did not sit well with many Democrats or Republicans, who believe the White House needs to provide them with concrete contingency plans in case the military action tips the balance of power in the Syrian conflict.

Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, said US objectives had to be defined and achievable. He said “lack of leadership” by Mr Obama had made the situation more complex than it would have been earlier, because Syrian rebels were more democratically minded in earlier stages of the conflict but had since been “supplanted” by al-Qaeda-linked forces.

“I need to know the case [for war] and I also need to know ‘who are the rebels?’ We don’t know,” he said.

As in every policy Mr Obama pursues, internal strife among Republicans – where a significant portion of legislators support isolationist policies – is complicating efforts to seek approval of Congress, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

“Whether the administration can turn to the Congress and not find itself bogged down in a political argument is a real problem,” he said. “That means it will have to do far more to persuade the American public.”

A letter signed by more than 100 Republicans and Democrats urged Mr Obama to receive formal authorisation from Congress before ordering the use of force.

Before engaging in military action in Libya, the White House said the planned attacks there did not constitute “hostilities”, which would require congressional approval by law. A 2011 memo by the White House’s office of legal counsel to justify that action said constitutional powers allowed the president to conduct military operations which were limited in their nature, scope and duration in order to safeguard national interests.

The letter from the legislators on Wednesday said that justification was “unconstitutional”.

“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 said.

The lawmakers said Congress would reconvene at Mr Obama’s request. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Congress on September 9.

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