STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News, on Labor Day. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Congress has been invited to take a responsibility it does not always exercise. Though the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, many presidents have ordered limited military action without asking - most recently in Libya. More than a few lawmakers have been glad to not be put on the spot, but this time they will be.
On Saturday, President Obama said he wants a vote in Congress before he goes through with strikes on Syria. That leaves lawmakers to vote on the U.S. response to a chemical attack that killed more 1,400 people.
In a moment, we'll hear what governments around the world are thinking. Some of Syria's neighbors are ready to support a U.S. attack. We begin with the start of that congressional debate. Here's NPR's Ailsa Chang.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: For days, most of the discontent among members of Congress has been about not being included in the deliberations on Syria, about not getting the chance to vote. Well, now that they've gotten their way, each member of Congress will have to go on the record. And it's anyone's guess what that would actually look like.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW CLIPS)
REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING: Right now, I would say if the vote were today, it would probably be a no vote.
SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY: Listen, I think Congress passes the authorization. I...
SENATOR RAND PAUL: And I think it's at least 50-50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the Syrian war.
CHANG: That was Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking on Fox and NBC on Sunday.
A number of their colleagues traveled to the Capitol that same day to get the first classified briefing on Syria open to any lawmaker. Members who attended estimate more than a hundred showed up. There were reminders it was still summer recess.
Republican Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan strolled in wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Darth Vader. But lawmakers kept touching on the gravity of the question before them. Here's Xavier Becerra, chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
REPRESENTATIVE XAVIER BECERRA: It's a vote of conscience, and I think this is the supreme vote that any member of Congress can take. So this is not going to be a matter of trying to enforce party discipline, or to vote for or against the president. This has got to be something you believe in.
CHANG: Becerra says he believes in limited, brief strikes on Syria. But if you ask other lawmakers what the president should do, the most frequent response from both Democrats and Republicans was a version of I don't know yet.
REPRESENTATIVE JANICE HAHN: I'm not there yet.
CHANG: That's Democratic Congresswoman Janice Hahn of California.
HAHN: I feel terrible about the chemical weapons that have been used. However, we know that chemical weapons have been used in other instances, and we did not take military action.
CHANG: Lawmakers were holed up in the briefing room for almost three hours. House Democrat Jim Himes of Connecticut said there was a barrage of skeptical questions for White House officials. The specter of Iraq hung over the discussion.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM HIMES: In that room today, there was a lot of memories over another time when a president came and said - or at least the president's people came and said that this was a slam-dunk intelligence, and, of course, that was not, I think, an episode that most members would ever want to repeat.
CHANG: Many members are struggling with the question of how attacking Syria because of chemical weapons would actually protect U.S. national security. Others are wrestling with the goal of the mission. Is it to punish the use of chemical weapons? Or should the U.S. go further, and try to overthrow the regime? And still others are fearful the U.S. is treading into an open-ended conflict, despite the president's assurances the strikes would last just a few days.
REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Well, this is a partial blank check, the way it's currently drafted.
CHANG: House Democrat Chris Van Hollen of Maryland says explicit limits are missing from the language in the resolution the president wants Congress to pass. Van Hollen wants to see an express provision forbidding boots on the ground and a time limit on the attack. Caution like that was perceptible from nearly every lawmaker emerging from the briefing on Sunday.
Republican Mike Burgess of Texas says he's probably voting no.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE BURGESS: You know, I just think back to what General Eisenhower said in 1954. That was a pretty rough year for him. He said: You shouldn't go to war for emotional reasons. And right now, I think it would be in response - it would be an emotional response, and that probably is not a good enough reason.
CHANG: One day after the president's announcement, it's clear the debate on Syria will be intense and divisive. And somehow, Congress will have to fit that conversation into an already jam-packed schedule after the summer recess, when they'll have just a matter of weeks to figure out the country's debt and deficit problems, too.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.