Typically divided California politicians united in view on Syrian strike

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

President Barack Obama has temporarily united California’s liberals and conservatives, as ideologically diverse lawmakers join in warning against an unauthorized U.S. attack on Syria.

An unlikely duo of Central Valley political rivals underscores how often-antagonistic voices are singing from the same song book

Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay and Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of Walnut Creek ran for lieutenant governor against one another in 2006. Garamendi won. Their exchanges have frequently been sharp during subsequent congressional debates over issues such as California water.

But now Garamendi, whose hometown in Calaveras County is represented by McClintock, shares with his former Republican opponent the conviction that Obama needs prior congressional authorization before attacking Syria.

“It’s time for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority,” Garamendi said an interview Thursday. “The Constitution is very clear. Congress has the only authority to declare war. And cruise missiles being launched into another country is an act of war that requires congressional authorization, period.”

McClintock believes the same.

“The Constitution clearly and unmistakably vests Congress with the sole prerogative to declare war,” McClintock declared in a written statement issued this week, adding that “absent an attack or imminent threat to the United States or a specific authorization by Congress, the order of a military attack on the government of Syria would be illegal and unconstitutional.”

McClintock’s office did not respond Thursday to multiple queries.

McClintock joined 115 other House members, including five from California, in a bipartisan letter to Obama declaring that the president had the “responsibility” to receive congressional authorization before attacking. The signers included hard-core conservatives, like McClintock and freshman Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville, whose district stretches to the Oregon border.

Staunch liberals also signed, including Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, a former Peace Corps volunteer representing a coastal district, as well as several Democrats representing the Silicon Valley

A letter signed Thursday by more than 50 mostly liberal House Democrats, including Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and 11 other Californians, urged Obama to secure congressional approval.

And Garamendi, who likewise served in the Peace Corps, co-signed yet another letter to the White House urging Obama to first obtain congressional authorization.

“A teleconference with a few congressional leaders is simply not sufficient,” Garamendi said in an interview.

Obama administration officials on Thursday briefed House and Senate leaders and senior members of committees that deal with national security, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The briefing scheduled for early evening was characterized as a consultation, rather than a request for a green light from a Congress where skepticism abounds.

“A limited missile strike, as President Obama seems to be considering, probably would not accomplish much,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Feinstein says a chemical weapons attacked “cannot be condoned,” but has not publicly opined further about a U.S. attack. Her Democratic colleague, Sen. Barbara Boxer, said Thursday that “those who used these horrific weapons to cause so much human suffering must be held accountable.”

House members representing other portions of the Central Valley, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield; Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock; Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento; and Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, have not posted press statements or Tweets related to the latest Syria developments.

Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney of Stockton said Thursday that “the president should be consulting leaders of both the House and Senate,” but stopped short of demanding full-fledged congressional authorization.

Californians have been in the forefront of raising alarms in prior undeclared wars.

Former Rep. Tom Campbell, a Republican representing Silicon Valley, led another coalition of liberals and conservatives in a 1999 lawsuit challenging the Clinton administration’s undeclared air war on the former Yugoslavia. Foreshadowing the likely fate of any similar challenge on Syria, a federal court concluded the lawmakers lacked the legal standing to sue.

A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Garamendi added a provision to this year’s defense authorization bill declaring that the legislation did not authorize force against Syria. But the committee, which includes eight members from California, also kept options open. The panel’s 564-page committee report included a statement urging the president to “fully consider all courses of action to reinforce his stated ‘redline’ regarding (Syria’s) use of chemical weapons,” and it asked the Pentagon to report on the resources necessary for military action in Syria.

The committee chairman, Rep. Howard ‘Buck’ McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, declared earlier this year that “meaningful consequences” would be a “national security imperative” if Syria were to use chemical weapons. Others worry about who will pay the price.

“Once you unleash the dogs of war,” Garamendi said, “you have no idea of who they’re going to bite.”

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau