Senate Expresses Doubt on Syrian Intervention

Administration spent much of Tuesday trying to woo lawmakers who have expressed doubts about intervention

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Senator Bob Corker, left, and Senator Bob Menendez, center, listen during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on Sept. 3, 2013

Updated 9:40 p.m. E.T.: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote Wednesday on a draft proposal authorizing the use of force in Syria, per the Associated Press. The proposal blocks the use of American ground forces for combat operations and sets a 60-day deadline for military action that can be extended for 30 additional days.


President Barack Obama could hit a roadblock corralling a military response to the alleged chemical attacks in Syria from an unlikely source: the U.S. Senate, a body controlled by his own party.

Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democrat of New Jersey, and the ranking Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee met with the President on Tuesday morning to seek common ground for congressional authorization, but many Republicans and even a few Democrats expressed skepticism when asked if they would approve a strike.

“I have great reluctance to use the might and power of the U.S. military nearly to go in and extract some kind of punishment on a short-term basis,” said Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. When asked if any amendment would change his mind, he responded, “Maybe.”

“I want to recognize that it’s a bit of a strange situation to come to Congress to authorize action that you can already take,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who also sits on the committee. Military action, Flake said, “would seem to me to be less effective the longer you wait.”

“That’s been the concern that I think everyone has raised — what is under danger to the United States of America?” asked Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. “There’s an old saying, ‘We don’t have a dog in the fight.’ I think in this case if I come to West Virginia, they’re saying that we don’t have any friends in the fight either. I think that says everything in a nutshell.”

Nearly 60% of Americans oppose Obama’s efforts to launch missile strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime, according to an ABC–Washington Post poll released Tuesday. Last week, the British Parliament voted down a resolution to participate in a military strike and Russia torpedoed efforts in the U.N. On Monday, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said a military option was “out of the question” and on Tuesday, French President François Hollande said the country “will not act alone” if Congress votes against military intervention.

But Senate majority leader Harry Reid is confident that Democrats will have the votes to pass a resolution authorizing an attack even if opponents try to use a filibuster, the Wall Street Journal reported. Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said he believed there were “very significant national security interests here” that would validate a military response. “There’s a potential that both the Iranian regime and Hezbollah will take no action as a sign that we will allow not just chemical-weapons use, but might not act in circumstances that involve something even broader.”

“I think the last couple of days, as more people get more exposed to the intelligence, and more focused on national security interests, I think support will grow,” Casey added.

The Obama Administration organized a classified briefing on Tuesday in the basement of the Capitol to help guide lawmakers, including libertarian Republicans and dovish Democrats, towards an aye vote. Over a dozen House and Senate members attended the briefing led by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller and others, according to a House staffer involved.

Republican Senator Rand Paul, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, proved before the briefing that he’d be a difficult vote to woo.

“I think it’s interesting in the sense that the more narrow the resolution the more you would narrow the President’s ability to execute war,” Paul said. “So interestingly, while I won’t probably vote for any resolution, if you actually narrow it, it’ll be a contradiction to those that believe the President does have the power to execute war once it’s started. I think our power is our power whether to initiate or not to initiate war.”

After the briefing, independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats as a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said that his questions had not yet been answered. “Well I think the questions are: How strong is the intelligence case? No. 1. No. 2: What are the military options being considered? And No. 3: What are the ramifications of those options? Those are the questions I’m going to be asking all week.”

Despite the concerns of his colleagues, Corker remains optimistic. “I have a strong sense that we will be able to come to terms fairly quickly with what an authorization ought to say,” he told reporters after the meeting. “Our staffs had a very good mood last night based upon the conversations,” Corker said of his aides and those who work in Menendez’s office. “We are in agreement on what the authorization needs to address.” Corker said that the staffs worked Tuesday afternoon, and there have been reports that a resolution could come as early as Tuesday night.

And what exactly will be in their bill? “It has to be balanced. It has to ensure that the mission can be accomplished and at the same time not be so open-ended that people would perceive it to be an Iraq type of situation,” said Menendez. Escalation is “always something to be considered.”