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Lawmakers On Capitol Hill Criticize Biden's Order For Airstrikes Against Syria


Who should have a voice in approving U.S. military strikes overseas? President Biden approved an attack in Syria last week. The administration said it was retaliating against an Iran-backed militia for rocket attacks on a U.S. base in nearby Iraq. Some members of Biden's party say he should have checked with Congress first. The president is commander in chief, but the power to declare war rests with Congress.

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy attended an administration briefing on the strike and came away dissatisfied.

CHRIS MURPHY: As many presidents have, President Biden is claiming just the general power that a president has to defend troops overseas. That is not how Congress has interpreted the president's war-making authorities. What we've said through the War Powers Act is that the president has the ability to strike without congressional authorization if he's trying to prevent an imminent threat against U.S. troops. But he doesn't, under the War Powers Act, have the ability to take a retaliatory strike without coming to Congress first. If it's not an emergency, then the Constitution generally says you've got to get signoff from Congress.

INSKEEP: Well, the president - any president, of course - is in a situation where he - and it's always been a he up to now - can give the order. The bombs can drop. And people in Congress may complain about it, but there's a question of what Congress will do about it. Is there anything that you think you can do about it?

MURPHY: Well, I mean, one of the things we probably should do is take another look at the War Powers Act and, you know, clarify with a little bit more specificity than we have in the past about when the president does need to come to Congress and what his ability is under Article II. And there's a number of us on both sides of the aisle who are exploring refining the War Powers Act.

Other than that, the only power Congress really has is that of the purse. We can, as Congress did during the Vietnam War, start to cut off funding for U.S. operations. I certainly don't think we're contemplating anything like that in this case, but that generally is the main power the Congress has when it comes to stopping what the Congress may believe to be illegal actions by the executive branch overseas.

INSKEEP: We're in the aftermath of a very different presidency. The previous president, as you know, Senator, ignored a lot of the traditional limits on a president's power, also didn't consult Congress before making military moves, ignored congressional subpoenas and investigations. Does Congress need somehow to change the rules?

MURPHY: Well, I think Congress has, for a very long time, left on the table powers that it can and should use. But Congress hasn't been doing that. We passed the authorization of military force against al-Qaida 20 years ago. We still have on the books the Iraq War authorizations, which are used by presidents to take actions in the region. So Congress has kind of outsourced, intentionally, a lot of military decisions to the executive branch over multiple presidencies. And that doesn't have to be an inevitability.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's something about the structure of the system, though, that does make it inevitable. If you have an unfriendly president - and of course, you were opposed to President Trump - if you attempted at that time to change the rules of the game, the president will simply block you. Now you have a friendly president, but maybe you don't want to change the rules as much because you trust the president.

MURPHY: I definitely think there's an element of that. The president's party, you know, will often defer to that individual. That's why, you know, my hope is that by speaking out early, people like myself and Senator Kaine are making it clear that even though our party's president is in the White House, we are willing to sit down with Republicans and work on passing sort of new, updated war authorizations that would, you know, potentially limit what even a Democratic president can do overseas. I think this has to be a bipartisan exercise, and I think that's why Democrats, a handful of us, are speaking up early on.

INSKEEP: And it can't just be a matter of norms, then. You can't just have a polite conversation with the president. You think that something needs to change in terms of actual law?

MURPHY: I do. I do. I mean, again, because, you know, citizens don't get to weigh in on whether we go to war in places like Syria. The American people never had a debate about whether we should be putting thousands of troops inside Syria. And that's, you know, by and large, Congress' fault. You know, we had the ability to step in and stop funding troops there or demand that there be an updated authorization. We haven't done that, and we should. So I just think it's good for democracy if we have more congressional debates about where our troops are and what wars we're fighting.

INSKEEP: This makes me curious about one more thing. Is this part of the reason that you end up with a president like Donald Trump who was so critical of American foreign policy and got a lot of political benefit out of that? The U.S. pursued a particular foreign policy, including strikes abroad, didn't necessarily engage Congress or the public in debate over that, and therefore, the public wasn't all that committed to the policy.

MURPHY: Well - and what was wild about Trump's presidency was that he talked all the time about, you know, getting us out of foreign entanglements, "America first." And yet, by the end of his presidency, I think we had double the number of troops in the Middle East than we had at the beginning. In fact, he got us further enmeshed in Middle Eastern wars. And because we weren't debating those actions in Congress, other than a few sort of votes that were forced by people like myself and Bernie Sanders and Mike Lee, the American public didn't really notice, by and large, that we had substantially increased the presence of our forces in the Middle East.

So presidents like Donald Trump get away with sort of talking one way about foreign policy, but then getting us more deeply enmeshed in conflicts overseas in part because Congress doesn't sort of hold the administration's feet to the fire and demand that no president take action overseas without a explicit war authorization passed by Congress and debated by the American public.

INSKEEP: Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, thanks so much.

MURPHY: Appreciate it.

INSKEEP: And the question Murphy raised after the U.S. strike last week is an ongoing issue. Just yesterday, rockets fell on a U.S. base in Iraq again, and a contractor died of a heart attack, raising the question of how the U.S. responds this time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.