Senate Panel Backs Syria Bombing, Changing War Momentum

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Susan Walsh / Associated Press

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., right, and the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. listen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013.

The United States moved one step closer to waging an unpopular war in Syria, as a Senate panel approved a proposal by a vote of 10 to 7, with one vote “present,” authorizing the President to deter Syria’s use and degrade its capacity to use chemical weapons.

The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), described the authorization as narrow: The resolution gives permission to strike “legitimate military targets in Syria” in a “limited and specified manner” without ground combat operations.

If passed by the full Congress, Obama would have ninety days to wage war, unless Congress deems sixty is enough. But questions remain on how to find the sweet spot where the President has enough leeway to “change the momentum” but not enough power to entangle the country in an extended war.

Under the bill, it would be U.S. policy to “change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria.” That language, introduced as an amendment by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), calls on the U.S. to elevate its involvement in the region, a daunting prospect for even supporters of the new resolution.

Coons defended the amendment as a way to get to the narrow end goal set out by Corker and Menendez on Tuesday: achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. “Nothing about this amendment adds to the scope of the authorization for the use of force,” said Coons.

Still members of the Senate expressed concerns. “What happens on the 91st day?” asked Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.) at the committee hearing before the vote. “What happens if Mr. Assad decides at that point that he is going to use chemical weapons again? Will we return to Congress and start the debate again or should something else occur?”

Unless the timing issue is settled, the resolution could lead to a schizophrenic policy responding to the use of weapons of mass destruction, warned McCain. “There’s a perception problem here that can be created that we need to avoid,” said McCain. “We don’t want to have to go through amendment, authorization, debate on the floor etc. But at the same time, a dilemma that we face is that we don’t want to give an open-ended authority to the President of the United States either.”

McCain and Durbin were among the ten senators who voted for the meausure. Seven senators, voted nay, and one, Edward Markey (D-Mass.), voted present. The vote split both parties: five Republicans and two Democrats voted nay, seven Democrats and three Republicans aye.

Another question left unanswered by the legislation is what the military intervention will look like. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M) voted against the resolution after his amendment, which would only have allowed Obama to launch naval and air based military strikes outside of Syrian territory or airspace, failed 17 to 1. The amendment provoked McCain.

“We really can’t tell the President of the United States what tactics that he has to employ,” McCain said. “Certainly we can place limitations on certain broad activities…but we really don’t have the expertise to know exactly what kind of attack should be launched or not be launched.”

And that goes to the heart of Congress’ struggle with the executive branch over foreign affairs. The President will likely determine where the “momentum” lies, and indeed Obama has already claimed authority to carry out military action, even if Congress does not act.

The House, where passage is less certain, is likely to seek out language that puts more limits on the Syrian mission in the coming weeks. “I think it goes without saying that this [Coons-McCain amendment] does fundamentally alter the nature of this authorization,” replied Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I think it’ll take some people by surprise particularly in the House of Representatives as this goes forward.”