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Would a vote against military force be unprecedented? Maybe.

It has become clear in recent days that President Obama's so-called "use of force" resolution for Syria faces a very difficult road in the House and increasing uncertainty in the Senate.

So, if Congress actually votes against authorizing the use of force, would it be unprecedented?

Well, that depends on whom you ask.

Bloomberg declared in a recent story that Congress has never spurned a president in this manner.

"No U.S. president has ever been turned down by Congress when asking to use military force," the story began.

Don't tell that to James M. Lindsay, the senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. He recently wrote a blog post detailing five cases in which Congress turned down a request to authorize military action.

Here are the five, pulled directly from his blog post:

  1. In 1805, Thomas Jefferson urged Congress to authorize him to take action against Spain in a dispute over the boundary separating Florida (then Spanish territory) and Louisiana. Congress did nothing.
  2. In 1831, Andrew Jackson asked Congress for authority to order reprisals against French shipping and property if France continued to avoid paying damage claims that dated back to the Napoleonic era. The Senate voted unanimously against the request. Jackson let the issue drop.
  3. In 1859, James Buchanan asked Congress to authorize sending troops into Mexico to punish Indians who were conducting cross-border raids. Congress said no.
  4. In 1891, Benjamin Harrison asked Congress for authority “to take such action as may be deemed appropriate” to punish Chile for refusing to apologize after a mob killed two American sailors. Congress declined to authorize hostilities.
  5. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for authority to arm American-owned merchant vessels so they could sink German U-boats that had been preying on American shipping. Senators Robert La Follette (R-Wis.) and George Norris (R-Neb.) led a filibuster that killed the bill.

Well there you go ... except that not everybody agrees that these examples qualify.

We talked to Richard F. Grimmett, a former Congressional Research Service researcher who specializes in this area. He said these five aren't really the same thing.

Grimmett said (and we're paraphrasing):

(1) Jefferson never directly requested military action

(2-4) The presidents in these cases did not ask for specific authority to engage in military action comparable to what Obama is asking for in Syria, and Congress did not explicitly reject it

(3) This is akin to the a modern president asking the Defense Department to shore up border security

(4) This is more like asking to break diplomatic relations and was not a specific request for military action (plus, Chile apologized soon after)

(5) The resolution was about arming merchant ships for self-protection and it never came to a final vote because it was filibustered

It seems we're at a stalemate. So we brought Grimmett's case to Lindsay for a rebuttal.

He responded (and we're quoting him):

(1) Jefferson wrote the following in his special message to Congress on December 6, 1805: ... “Formal war is not necessary -- it is not probable it will follow; but the protection of our citizens, the spirit and honor of our country require that force should be interposed to a certain degree."

(2,4) Jackson and Harrison both asked Congress to authorize the use of military force to punish countries for behavior they deemed unacceptable. President Obama is seeking to punish Syria for behavior he deems unacceptable.

(3) The Buchanan examples differs from the Obama example in that Buchanan asked Congress to authorize the use of force against what we today call a non-state actor. Obama wants to use force against a state actor. But the question I asked wasn’t narrowed to: has Congress ever declined to authorize the use of military force against a sovereign state?

(5) President Wilson’s request to Congress on February 26, 1917, was for authority to arm merchant vessels so they could sink German U-boats. The bill that the Senate was considering at Wilson’s request also stated that “he be, and is hereby, authorized and empowered to employ such other instrumentalities as may, in his judgment and discretion, seem necessary and adequate to protect such vessels.”

Not only do Grimmett and Lindsay disagree about these five examples; Grimmett actually proposes a sixth example -- from 1815 -- that he thinks may be more parallel, though still not quite the same thing.

In that case, President James Madison formally requested that Congress declare war against the Regency of Algiers in response to its attacks on U.S. citizens and commerce in the Mediterranean.

This was immediately after the War of 1812, and Congress refused to declare another war. It did, however, authorize Madison to utilize armed vessels against Algerian naval attacks.

Another example that many cite for Congress rejecting a president's request for the use of force is Bill Clinton and Kosovo in 1999. In that case, the House did deadlock on authorizing force, but the intervention was already taking place, and Congress later approved a bill the funded the military's efforts in that conflict.

In sum, Congress very rarely turns down a president's request for military force. Whether it would be unprecedented or not depends on which expert you ask.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.



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