Syria Debate Splitting GOP

Billy House and Michael Catalini (National Journal)


While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could get down to drafting a new bipartisan resolution on Syria on Wednesday, the House will kick off its own debate on whether to authorize military force amid clear divisions between Republican leaders and conservative activists.

During the opening round of the Senate panel's debate on Tuesday, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said he was working with ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., on the text of a bipartisan resolution and that the committee could consider it as soon as Wednesday during a closed meeting with the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Menendez did not give details of what would be changed from the resolution sent to Congress by the White House, but he said it would provide the "maximum ability" for the administration to meet the goals it hopes to achieve in Syria while preventing an "open-ended engagement" or the use of American troops on the ground.

On the House side, even as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said they will vote to authorize a limited strike, a Boehner spokesman emphasized there remains a tough "uphill battle to pass a resolution" and underscored that the speaker expects the White House—not his leadership team—to lead the whipping effort for votes.

The mixed message came as influential conservative policy organizations were seeking to convince rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose President Obama's request for a military strike. One group, Heritage Action—the political arm of the Heritage Foundation—directly rebuffed Boehner and Cantor, arguing that a vital U.S. interest is not at stake in Syria. Declining to say whether the group would score lawmakers on the Syria resolution, Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler argued that Congress faces more pressing domestic issues like the farm bill and the debt ceiling.

The continued reluctance, skepticism, or opposition of various segments of lawmakers was fully on display at Tuesday's Senate hearing as Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey made the administration's case for retaliating against Syrian leaders for using chemical weapons in a brutal civil war. For now, it appears too early to predict the outcome of any vote, which could come next week.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has said he thinks it would be a mistake to get involved in Syria, made his skepticism clear in questioning Kerry. Paul asked, if Congress votes down the war resolution—though he said he didn't believe that will happen—would the administration not go forward with an action in Syria? "You're making a joke of us" if this is not real, Paul said.

Kerry responded that he doesn't know what the president's decision would be, that he intends to win this vote, but that he still would have constitutional authority to take action if he does not. "I don't believe he does," Paul responded.

Asked after the hearing if there would be a filibuster, Paul answered affirmatively, saying he believed 60 votes would be required to consider the resolution in the Senate. But pressed on whether he would filibuster on his own, as he did for 13 hours earlier this year on Obama's nominee for intelligence director, Paul cracked that he would have to check his shoes and decide if he could hold out that long without a bathroom break.

A number of liberal Democrats are openly advocating intervention, some on humanitarian grounds. Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Ben Cardin of Maryland are among those who have joined with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in saying they support a limited operation.

"I know there is tremendous reluctance to not get involved in another military action," Boxer said. "I will support this target effort, but not a blank check." Cardin said: "It's clear we have to respond, and a military response is justified."

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., asked Kerry whether it would be wise for the United States to wait for analysis and data from the United Nations inspectors "to ensure a signal sent to international community as to the veracity." Kerry responded that it could take two to four weeks for the U.N. to finish its analysis, and that there is already a sufficient level of confirmation that a chemical attack took place. Kerry also said the U.N. mandate will only allow the inspectors to say a chemical weapons attack did take place: "They have no mandate to assign blame, who did it."

Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., told Kerry there is a "weariness of war" among his constituents, who worry that the United States could be drawn into a civil war "that we don't quite understand." But Coons added that after reviewing classified information provided to lawmakers Tuesday morning, he believes there has been a clear violation of a longstanding global standard of behavior, and "that we face a real risk here if we do not act."

Coons says he still ponders how exactly a war resolution should be written, though. And Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., expressed similar sentiments, telling Kerry he hoped the White House would cooperate in drafting resolution language, in bipartisan fashion, "that does not expand authorization beyond what is necessary."

Some foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party are also calling for the use of military force; some even say the goal should be to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. And they even seem irritated by the delay.

"If we reject this resolution, doesn't this send a seriously bad message … encourage our enemies and discourage our friends?" asked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the hearing. McCain also told Kerry that it's "ridiculous" to think that when you tell the enemy beforehand you're going to attack them that they are not going to disperse and move assets and make it harder.

In his own remarks Tuesday, Obama again stressed to reporters that the military action he envisions is based on the "high confidence" that Assad's regime used chemical weapons in an attack against his own people last month and that the U.S. action would be a "limited, proportional step." Obama added that he was confident that Congress will authorize action, "so long as we are accomplishing what needs to be accomplished—which is to send a clear message to Assad degrading his capabilities to use chemical weapons."

"This is not the time for armchair isolationism," Kerry said during the hearing, which was interrupted briefly by some mild protests, including by one demonstrator who shouted out that no one wants war as Capitol Police carried her out of the room.

Asked whether the cost of an operation in Syria contributed to the group's opposition, Heritage Action's Holler said it was one factor, but not the principal one. A mission in Syria could be used to roll back spending caps agreed to under the Budget Control Act of 2011, Holler said.

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