Obama's wait for Congress on Syria strike is historic twist

In his 24 years on Capitol Hill, Joe Lieberman "never saw anything like" President Obama's surprise announcement Saturday that he will seek congressional authorization for a limited strike in civil war-torn Syria, the former independent Connecticut senator said over the weekend on "Fox News Sunday."

"We had President Clinton acting in Bosnia and Kosovo without endorsement by Congress," Lieberman said. "In the 1991 Gulf War, President Bush 41 was massing troops, ultimately over a half a million Americans. There was a debate about whether he should come to Congress for authorization - he did; it was very close. Passed in the Senate by only 52 to 47. But nothing like this.

"...The administration says consistently that he doesn't have to come to Congress to take military action," he went on. "Secretary [of State John] Kerry on Fridayin a brilliant, convincing, moving statement essentially indicts [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad as a mass murderer. And then the president says yesterday, let's wait. There is a mass murderer at loose. And right now, while we are waiting, he's dispersing his critical assets."

Mr. Obama's decision to take his case for direct involvement in Syria's two-year-old conflict to Congress marked an abrupt turnaround for the White House, which had appeared on the cusp of ordering U.S. forces to launch a missile attack against Syria, in light of evidence that Assad's regime used chemical weapons against his own people.

And irony notwithstanding - the president as well as his then-fellow senators, Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, all at one point opposed the Iraq War - it also stood out as being historically uncommon for a limited strike: Authorization requests are typically reserved for boots on the ground.

It's true that the president's move was an unlikely course of action, agreed Norm Ornstein, congressional scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. "If you look at past experiences involving military action," he said, "pretty much any time except the first Gulf War, presidents have generally gone ahead and just done it and then waited to see what the consequences were."

Ornstein reasoned the president's possible rationale: "He probably thought, after two wars, that it makes sense to bring Congress in. He's always believed Congress plays a role in these types of decisions. It also gives Congress a buy-in -- cuts down on what will be an enormous amount of carping. Those who criticize him no matter what he does, it puts them on the line to make a decision in the face of very powerful evidence that Assad has engaged in unspeakably evil act."

Making the Sunday show rounds, lawmakers were torn about whether Congress would OK the president's resolution requesting authorization for military force.

When Mr. Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would mark a "red line" that Assad wouldn't be allowed to cross with impunity, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on "Face the Nation," "he didn't say, 'It's a red line - and by the way I'm going to have to seek the approval of Congress.' He said it was a red line, and that the United States of America would act. And that's a big difference, and that's one of the reasons why this is so problematic."

One of theloudest critics of the administration's handling of Syria, McCain said Mr. Obama should have taken action early on, and called Assad "euphoric" about the president's announcement Saturday. With "unprecedented leaking" about what ships and missiles the United States have positioned in the region, he argued, "a reversal at this point, I think, has serious consequences as far as the steadfastness and purpose of this administration."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.