Senate committee approves military action in Syria

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., listens at right as the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, during the committee's hearing to consider the authorization for use of military force in Syria. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Updated at 5:25 p.m. ET

Navigating a tricky balance between hawks pushing for more and doves pushing for less, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly advanced a resolution authorizing the use of American military force in Syria on Wednesday.

The resolution, which passed by a margin of 10-7, with one senator voting present, endorses President Obama's call for a limited military campaign against the Syrian government in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. It sanctions the use of force for 90 days, calling for a military strike that degrades Assad's capacity to deploy more chemical weapons and empowers rebel forces in their drive to oust Assad from power. The text explicitly bans the deployment of American boots on the ground in Syria.

With the exceptions of Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., all of the panel's Democrats voted in favor of the resolution. Udall and Murphy were opposed, while Markey voted 'present.'

Republicans, with the exceptions Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., voted against the resolution.

The resolution, heeding McCain's counsel, also says that any military action must be part of a broader strategy in Syria that seeks to reverse the momentum on the ground, putting Assad back on his heels and hastening a negotiated political settlement that removes the dictator from power.

The committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called the resolution a "declaration of our values" at the top of the committee's markup, saying it "sends a clear message that the world cannot and will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons anywhere."

The text, he added, appropriately narrows the "scope, duration, and breadth" of the authorization of the use of military force while still protecting America's national security and upholding the international consensus against the use of chemical weapons.

In a statement released after the vote, the White House praised the committee for advancing the resolution. "We commend the Senate for moving swiftly and for working across party lines on behalf of our national security," the statement read. "We will continue to work with Congress to build on this bipartisan support for a military response that is narrowly tailored to enforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and sufficient to protect the national security interests of the United States of America."

The resolution's road to passage was marked by the consideration of several amendments, notably changes offered by McCain and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

McCain warned earlier Wednesday that he was opposed to a previous version of the resolution, saying it too severely restricted the president's ability to wage war. He offered an amendment during the committee's markup that would ensure that any action taken in Syria was part of a broader strategy to turn the tide against Assad.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.., co-sponsored McCain's amendment, arguing that nothing in the proposed change "adds to the scope of the authorization" Congress is considering. The amendment passed on a voice vote.

Another amendment, offered by Paul, would have prohibited the president from carrying out the strike if Congress votes against authorizing the use of force. Mr. Obama has said he reserves the right to act in the absence of congressional approval, but Paul has said such a move would be a perversion of the Constitution.

Many senators said that Paul's amendment initiates a worthwhile debate about the competing prerogatives of the legislative and executive branches when it comes to the use of American military force, but several noted that the debate over Syria may not provide enough time to resolve the dispute.

Paul countered that there "never seems to be a good time to debate this," but his committee members were ultimately unconvinced: Menendez cited the limited timeframe in his decision to vote against Paul's amendment, which ultimately failed by a margin of 14-5.

Earlier on Wednesday, aides to Paul confirmed to CBS News' John Nolen that the Kentucky Republican would seek a 60-vote threshold on the Syria resolution, which would greatly lengthen the duration of the floor debate. Paul, however, disputed those reports during the committee markup, blaming a media misinterpretation.

The resolution now heads to the full Senate for final approval. The House of Representatives must approve a similar measure if Congress is to ultimately authorize the use of force.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pressed the case for intervention before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday afternoon.

The officials faced occasionally hostile questions from lawmakers at the hearing. The committee's chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., expressed his concern about "what happens next" if the U.S. bombs Syria.

"What are the chances of escalation?" he asked. "Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line, as is argued, what about if Assad retaliates?"

Kerry urged Congress to institute a "trigger" compelling a U.S. response in case the Syrian regime retaliates. "If [Assad] were to come back and use chemical weapons again," Kerry said, the U.S. should be able to "respond to that."

Later in the hearing, Kerry and Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., engaged in a heated dispute after Duncan invoked the Benghazi and Fast and Furious controversies to argue that Americans don't trust the Obama administration to use America's military judiciously.

"These issues call into question the accountability of this administration, its commitment to the personnel on the ground, and the judgment that it uses when, making these determinations," Duncan said. "The American people deserve answers before they move forward talking about military involvement in Syria."

Kerry, his voice brimming with umbrage, replied, "We're talking about people being killed by gas and you want to go talk about Benghazi and Fast and Furious."

"We are acting cautiously," he insisted. "We are acting so cautiously that the president of the United States was accused of not acting because he wanted to have sufficient evidence and he wanted to build the case properly."

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr. Obama took his case for intervention before a foreign audience, warning during a press conference in Sweden that the "international community's credibility is on the line" as it determines how to respond to evidence of a chemical attack in Syria.

  • Jake Miller

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