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‘No’ vote on Syria wouldn’t be the end

In this image from video U.S. Secretary State John Kerry speaks from State Department WashingtSunday Sept. 1 2013 making case

In this image from video U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks from the State Department in Washington Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, making a case for U.S. intervention in Syria. Kerry appeared at State in a series of interviews for Sunday news shows to say the case for intervention in Syria's two-and-a-half-year civil war was strengthening each day and that he expected American lawmakers to recognize the need for action when the "credibility of the United States is on the line." (AP Photo/APTN)

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Updated: October 3, 2013 6:29AM

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry sidestepped questions Sunday about whether President Barack Obama would order a military strike against Syria even if Obama lost the upcoming congressional vote he asked for.

Kerry didn’t close the door because he did not want to concede any doubt that Obama will win his enormously high-stakes bid for authorization from the House and Senate as the secretary blitzed five Sunday shows.

The display of bravado was not surprising — Kerry had to — but the reality is that Obama faces an uphill battle in obtaining the authorization. The Democratic-run Senate will be an easier sell than the GOP-controlled House, where there are plenty of skeptics on both sides of the aisle.

As Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y) told me in a Sunday interview, “I don’t see how we have been designated to put out every fire in the world because there are evil people.”

With no votes before Congress returns on Sept. 9, Obama is using the time to sell an attack to lawmakers. Illinois Democrats Mike Quigley and Brad Schneider made a daytrip here Sunday for a classified briefing. Later in the week, Obama will try to find some international partners when he travels to Stockholm and then to Russia for the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

However, by waving off questions about an Obama fallback plan, Kerry left the perception that Obama would consider using his presidential powers to order an attack on the Syrian government in the wake of evidence the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians.

NBC’s “Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked Kerry: “If Congress says no, the president will act regardless of what Congress says?”

Kerry offered an oblique reply. “I said that the president has the authority to act, but the Congress is going to do what’s right here.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Kerry, asked a similar question by Gloria Borger, said: “The president has the right, and he has asserted that right, that he could do what’s necessary to protect the national security of the United States at any point in time.”

George Stephanopoulos, the host of ABC’s “This Week,” tried it this way with Kerry: “I know you don’t contemplate a loss, but what if the votes aren’t there? Will the president act anyway?”

Sticking to his talking points, Kerry said: “The president has the right — as you know, George, the president of the United States has the right to take this action, doesn’t have to go to Congress.”

Concluded Stephanopoulos, “But if I hear you correctly, you’re saying the president is going to act no matter what.”

Kerry, punting, said, “I said the president has the right to act.”

And presidents do.

President’s have activated the U.S. war military without permission from Congress.

Former President Ronald Reagan used his power to launch attacks on Grenada in 1983 and Libya in 1986. Former President George H. W. Bush hit Panama in 1989. Former President Bill Clinton sent the U.S. military to join in NATO-led Kosovo bombing missions in 1999, triggering a major controversy over whether Clinton on his own could engage the U.S. in the air war. Obama in 2011 ordered U.S. military forces to be part of NATO’s Libya mission to “prevent a humanitarian disaster.”

But an administration source I talked with Sunday downplayed Obama taking unilateral action after being rejected by Congress. It would be very difficult and massively risky for Obama to go it alone — without Congress and or an international coalition.

I was reminded that in Washington, it often takes more than one try to secure a legislative victory. If a vote fails — and barring another horrific chemical attack that could force his hand — Obama and his team would likely go back to their drawing board, figure out where they fell short, engage, revise and compromise — and vote again.


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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