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Some Democrats At Odds Over Obama's Claim To Airstrike Authority


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. A world leader called on his nation's lawmakers this past week to debate launching airstrikes against the group known as the Islamic State. That leader was not President Obama. It was British Prime Minister David Cameron. The American president, for his part, skipped getting Congress to sign on before attacking the group also known as ISIS or ISIL. As NPR's David Welna reports, that has upset some of Obama's allies on the Hill.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On the morning after the U.S. expanded its air war against ISIS to Syria, President Obama claimed a majority on Capitol Hill in both parties backed that action.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've spoken to leaders in Congress, and I'm pleased that there is bipartisan support for the actions that we're taking. America's always stronger when we stand united.

WELNA: But some lawmakers - almost all of them Democrats - say standing united hardly means it's legal.

CONGRESSMAN ADAM SCHIFF: There is congressional support for the actions the president has taken, but that's not the same as saying that there's a constitutional basis for what the president is doing.

WELNA: That's Adam Schiff, a California House Democrat. He rejects the president's contention outlined in a letter sent to congressional leaders that the Syria airstrikes were already authorized by the authorization to use military force that Congress approved after the 9/11 attacks. Schiff says that measure applied only to al-Qaida and its collaborators in those attacks.

SCHIFF: ISIS is not part of al-Qaida. It's been excommunicated from al-Qaida. It's often at war with al-Qaida.

WELNA: In that same letter to Congress, President Obama cited another justification for using force against ISIS, this one from 2002. But Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, speaking at the Center for American Progress, said that permission to overthrow Saddam Hussein is outdated.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: The purpose of that '02 authorization was not to engage in open-ended war in the zip codes that happen to be Iraq without limitation in terms of time. It was directed at the toppling of a particular regime.

WELNA: That letter Obama sent Congress also buys him time to act alone. Under the War Powers Act, every time he notifies leaders of military strikes, his power to carry them out without congressional approval extends another 60 days. But there's also international law which puts clear strictures on when a sovereign state can be attacked. Deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken insisted on MSNBC, the U.S. is acting within that law.

DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TONY BLINKEN: Even as we take action against ISIL in Iraqi, if we're not able to do so as well in Syria, they can continue to plot and plan and build attacks, including on Iraq, from Syria. And so this was at the request of the Iraqis, and it fits into the theory of collective self-defense.

WELNA: Some international legal experts say they are unconvinced. University of Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O'Connell says no theory of collective self-defense justifies dropping bombs on Syria.

O'CONNELL: Under the UN charter, a state has a right to use major military force like these airstrikes if it has been the victim of an armed attack by that state. We're not in anything like that situation with Syria.

WELNA: A clearer authorization from Congress for military action could give President Obama more solid footing. A year ago Obama seemed to see it that way, too, when he sought authorization to carry out airstrikes against Syria.


OBAMA: So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress.

WELNA: The president is not asking, this time, for such a debate. So Congressman Schiff says it's up to Congress to act.

SCHIFF: Frankly I think the pressure is going to be immense among members on both sides of the aisle for a vote on a new authorization immediately after these elections.

WELNA: ...Or later. House Speaker John Boehner prefers waiting until a new Congress is sworn in next year. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.