WASHINGTON (CNN) — After signaling he was on the verge of delivering a strike against Syria, President Barack Obama made a last-minute decision Friday evening to seek congressional authorization before any military action, senior administration officials told reporters Saturday.
The president announced the change in plans to his advisers at approximately 7 p.m. Friday night, officials said. Officials added Obama had also come to the conclusion the United States should carry out a limited military strike to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities.
After privately wrestling with the decision for the past week, the officials said, Obama took what was described as a 45-minute walk with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough around 6 p.m. Friday and then called his top national security advisers into the Oval Office for a discussion.
Senior administration officials say a heated debate broke out over the president’s decision. Those officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity and asked not to be quoted, declined to say which advisers initially disagreed with the call to seek congressional approval. The administration’s national security team, those officials added, is now firmly behind the president.
The president later telephoned his Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry to relay his decision, officials said.
Obama convened a “principals meeting” of his top national security and intelligence officials Saturday morning to finalize his decision.
In addition to consulting with his top advisers, Obama also consulted with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the president a delay would not jeopardize a military strike against Syria, officials said.
But the decision to wait and seek congressional authorization comes with some risk, official conceded. A vote to approve a military mission in Syria could fail in Congress.
There is also the uncertain reaction from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Senior administration officials, who accuse al-Assad of gassing rebel fighters along with innocent civilians, said the Syrian leader should think twice before taking any drastic action. The president, those officials cautioned, would hold al-Assad accountable.
Senior administration officials rejected the notion the president’s decision to seek congressional authorization undermines decades of entrenched executive branch powers to take military action.
Asking lawmakers for approval, the White House argues, would strengthen the president’s position diplomatically. Officials insisted the legislative branch is also responsible for holding al-Assad accountable for his alleged use of poison gas, noting Congress ratified an international chemical weapons convention in 1997.
To bolster their case to members of Congress, White House officials plan to make available classified materials from the administration’s intelligence report on the August 21 attack around Damascus. National security officials released an unclassified version of that assessment Friday.
Congressional leaders, senior administration officials maintained, were supportive of the president’s decision to ask for approval from Capitol Hill.
A top legislative aide, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned the confidence of White House officials in the outcome of any vote.
“It’s going to take a lot of work from (the president) to sell it. It’s all on him,” the aide said.