Senate panel backs Obama on Syria strike
By DAVID ESPO and DONNA CASSATA
The Associated Press | September 05,2013
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s request for speedy congressional backing of a military strike in Syria advanced Wednesday toward a showdown Senate vote, hours after the commander in chief left open the possibility he would order retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack even if Congress withheld its approval.
A resolution backing the use of force against President Bashar Assad’s government cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote after it was stiffened at the last minute to include a pledge of support for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power” in Syria’s civil war. It also would rule out U.S. combat operations on the ground.
The measure is expected to reach the Senate floor next week, although the timing for a vote is uncertain. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster.
The House also is reviewing Obama’s request, but its timetable is even less certain.
The administration blames Assad for a chemical weapons attack that took place Aug. 21 and says more than 1,400 civilians died, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.
The Senate panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated cruise missile strike against Syria last weekend and instead asked lawmakers to unite behind such a plan.
The president was in Sweden after a day of diplomacy when the vote occurred. At a news conference earlier, he said, “I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security.” In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress’ credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.”
Secretary of State John Kerry said he believes Obama will address the nation on Syria in the next few days. The president returns home from overseas Friday night.
Obama’s request also received its first hearing in the House during the day, and Kerry responded heatedly when Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said that Kerry, Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden all had advocated for caution in past conflicts. “Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you have abandoned past caution in favor of pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?” Duncan asked.
Kerry, who fought in Vietnam in the 1960s and voted to authorize the war against Iraq a decade ago, shot back angrily: “I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn’t a cautious thing to do when I did it.” When Duncan interrupted, the secretary of state said, “I’m going to finish, congressman,” and cited his support as senator for past U.S. military action in Panama and elsewhere.
Asked during the hearing about international support for Obama’s threatened military strike, Kerry said the Arab League has offered to pay the cost of any U.S. military action. He was not specific but said the offers have been “quite significant, very significant.”
The Senate committee’s vote capped a hectic few days in which lawmakers first narrowed the scope of Obama’s request — limiting it to 90 days and banning combat operations on the ground — and then widened it.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of aggressive U.S. military action in Syria, joined forces with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, of Delaware, to add a provision calling for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria.”
At their urging, the measure also was changed to state that the policy of the United States is “to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.” McCain, who has long accused Obama of timidity in Syria, argued that Assad will be willing to participate in diplomatic negotiations only if he believes he is going to lose the civil war he has been fighting for more than two years.
The changes were enough to attract bipartisan support, but political fault lines were evident inside each party on a military action that polls show a war-weary public opposes.
Seven Democrats and three Republicans supported the measure, while two Democrats and five Republicans opposed it. Among Republicans, opposition came from lawmakers with the closest ties to tea party activists, including Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both presidential aspirants.
Among Democrats, Kerry’s replacement in the Senate, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voted “present” after expressing misgivings.
In his comments in Sweden, the president sought to shift the onus for responding to Assad to Congress and the world at large. “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line” with a treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. He added that “Congress set a red line” when it passed legislation a decade ago demanding Syria stop production of weapons of mass destruction.
His comments drew a disbelieving response from one Republican back home.
“He needs to go back and read his quote,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, of Georgia, referring to a comment the president made slightly more than a year ago. On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
“That would change my calculus” about military action, he added at the time.
Few if any members of Congress dispute the administration’s claim that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack, and lawmakers in both parties appear far more focused on determining how they should respond.