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Congress vows to take up Syria vote - after recess

Senior Republican officials praised President Barack Obama's decision Saturday to seek Congressional authorization before striking Syria, signaling bipartisan
Image: Handout of U.S. President Obama meeting with national security staff to discuss Syria in White House
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with his national security staff to discuss the situation in Syria in the Situation Room of the White House in...

Senior Republican officials praised President Barack Obama's decision Saturday to seek Congressional authorization before striking Syria, signaling bipartisan support for a debate—but not necessarily bipartisan approval for military action.

"The president's role as commander-in-chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the expressed support of the Congress," said Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.

Obama placed the responsibility for acting against the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons on the shoulders of Congress, and reminded representatives just what was at stake.

"Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?" he said.

The White House sent a draft resolution authorizing the use of military force against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Congress shortly after the president's remarks.

Republicans had been highly critical of the president’s handling of a suspected chemical attack on civilians by Assad's forces, and had warned that a decision to strike militarily without Congressional approval would not be “legally justified.” By calling for Congressional authorization before taking action on Syria, Obama also tests the bipartisanship of members who have been loath to compromise with his administration.

According to a recent NBC News poll, 79% of Americans believe the president should get full congressional approval before taking any military action. Ahead of his announcement Saturday, President Obama spoke with congressional leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and his advisers were originally split on his decision, NBC's David Gregory reported.

House Speaker John Boehner, who had sent Obama a letter calling precisely for Congressional approval on Syria, also applauded the response. Crucially, however, Boehner said the House would take up the Syria debate once it returns from summer break Sept. 9, an indication that he would not call members in for an early session.

“This provides the president time to make his case to Congress and the American people," Boehner said.

Senate leader Democrat Harry Reid said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will begin hearings as early as next week with the full Senate taking up a vote on military action no later than the week of Sept. 9 when Congress returns to Washington. Reid said he agreed with President Obama that "use of military force against Syria is both justified and necessary." The House's Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi also echoed her support for a strike: "As the President stated today, military action in response to Assad's reckless use of deadly gas that is limited in scope and duration, without boots on the ground, is in our national security interest and in furtherance of regional stability and global security," she said in a statement.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida urged Congress to return to Washington immediately. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have been advocating for a U.S. mission in Syria, also called for Congress to take up the issue as quickly as possible.

"We believe President Obama is correct that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons requires a military response by the United States and our friends and allies," the two said in a statement. "Since the President is now seeking Congressional support for this action, the Congress must act as soon as possible."

McCain and Graham stopped short of fully congratulating Obama, who called for a mission that is “designed to be limited in duration and scope.” Instead, they called for an "overall strategy."

"Anything short of this would be an inadequate response to the crimes against humanity that Assad and his forces are committing," they said in a statement. "And it would send the wrong signal to America's friends and allies, the Syrian opposition, the Assad regime, Iran, and the world - all of whom are watching closely what actions America will take."

Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz of Texas argued that intervening in Syria is not in the best interests of the U.S, though he did support Obama's decision to bring it back to Congress. Cruz's departure from McCain and Graham on foreign wars indicates a split in the Republican Party between interventionists and supporters of Cruz, who include Senator Rand Paul.

"I remain concerned that the mission proposed by the President is not in furtherance the vital national security interests of the United States," Cruz said in a statement. "To date I have heard a great deal from the administration about punishing Bashir al-Assad for violating an "international norm" through the use of chemical weapons, and that this is why we must act against him. Abstract notions about international norms should never displace U.S. sovereignty to act, or refuse to act, for our national security."

Rep. Peter King was one of the rare critics of Obama's decision, saying he was “abdicating his responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents,” in a statement.