WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s request for speedy congressional backing of a military strike in Syria advanced in the Senate today, 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.
The authorization measure, which cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote, was altered at the last minute to support “decisive changes to the present military balance of power” in Syria’s civil war. It would rule out U.S. combat operations on the ground.
The resolution is expected to reach the Senate floor next week, although the timetable for a vote is uncertain. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster.
The panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress to the president’s unexpected announcement last weekend that he was putting off an expected cruise missile strike against Syria and instead was first asking 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.”
Obama’s request also received its first hearing in the House during the day, and Secretary of State John 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 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 administration blames a chemical weapons attack that took place on Aug. 21 on Assad’s government 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 Assad were to blame.
Obama, who will cross paths with Russia President Vladimir Putin at a G-20 economic summit this week, was asked in Stockholm about the strains that their differences on Syria were putting on their countries’ relations. Obama said he would continue to engage Putin, even though advances in U.S.-Russia relations had “hit a wall.”
Putin said in an interview with The Associated Press that Russia “doesn’t exclude” supporting a U.N. resolution on military strikes against the Syrian government if it is proved that government forces used poison gas on civilians. But he said it was “ludicrous” that Syria would use chemical weapons at a time when rebels were on the defensive.
— In Rome, Pope Francis underscored Vatican opposition to threatened military strikes against Syria, urging Catholics and non-Catholics alike to take part in a day of fasting and prayer for peace on Saturday. He has called for a negotiated settlement in Syria and also has condemned the use of chemical weapons.
— In France, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that failure to take action would allow Assad to launch more chemical attacks.
In Washington, Kerry said Assad had used chemical weapons 11 times, including once last spring. At that time, he said, Obama did not have a “compelling” enough case to push for a U.S. military response.
As for the most recent chemical weapons attack, Kerry declared that “only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert that this did not occur as described or that the regime did not do it. It did happen - and the Assad regime did do it.”
Few if any members of Congress dispute the administration’s claim that Assad was responsible for the attack, and lawmakers in both parties appear far more focused on determining how they should respond.
Gaveling the House committee hearing to order, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said that while it would be important to deter the use of chemical weapons by Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the U.S. would do if Assad retaliated.
“The administration’s Syria policy doesn’t build confidence,” he said.
In a letter to her rank and file, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she had received suggestions for legislation in the House “to add language to prevent boots on the ground, to tie the authorization more closely to the use of chemical weapons and to address concerns about an open-ended timetable.”
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,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said, 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.
In addition to his remarks at a news conference today, Obama also likened the challenge confronting the United States and the world with regard to Syria to the actions of Raoul Wallenberg a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from death during the Holocaust. Obama went to the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, where he stood with Jewish leaders and said, “Because he refused to stand by, Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose not simply to bear witness, but also to act.”
An Associated Press survey of lawmakers indicated many were withholding judgment on legislation.
In the Senate, 17 said they support or are leaning in favor of giving Obama the authority he seeks, with 14 opposed or leaning against.
The other 69 were undecided or their views were not known.