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The Senate’s Syria hearing: Live updates

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is hearing testimony Tuesday about the potential use of military force in Syria. Testifying are Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.

The hearing will be closely watched around the world as lawmakers weigh whether or not to formally authorize the use of U.S. forces in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons on Syrian refugees. As of now, Congress remains skeptical.


Hearing concludes after more than 3 1/2 hours

A marathon hearing to discuss the possibility of a U.S. military strike on Syria ends after a little more than 3 1/2 hours. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the panel is “close to a text on a resolution” and is likely to meet Wednesday to debate the language.

That end our coverage for today. Please visit PostPolitics.com for more updates.

Kerry turns tables on Rand Paul

After weathering a barrage of criticism from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Kerry turned the tables and demanded to know whether or not he believed that air strikes would make Assad more or less likely to use chemical weapons again.

“It’s unknown,” Paul replied.

Jabbing his finger, Kerry disagreed, saying it was guaranteed that Assad would use chemical weapons again if the U.S. doesn’t act.

Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, reminded Paul that “you’ve got three of us here who have gone to war” and that they know what it involves.

“The president is not asking you to go to war,” he said, urging Paul to go to a classified briefing “and learn that.”

Concluding his comments, Kerry turned to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for back-up, asking if he wanted to “weigh in on this.”

“No, not really,” came the reply, prompting laughter from the panel.

Paul: White House should be bound by congressional decision

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is opposed to military action in Syria, pressed the assembled witnesses to pledge not to launch any attacks without congressional authorization.

The Obama administration has maintained that it retains the right to act even without congressional approval, but Paul said that flies in the face of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power to declare war.

“Ask the people on the ships launching missiles whether they’re involved with war or not,” Paul said. “If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You’re probably going to win, just go ahead and say it’s real.”

Kerry didn’t take the bait. Instead, he repeated his previous statements that the administration isn’t entertaining the possibility of losing the vote — despite clear indications that it could.

“The president intends to win this vote,” Kerry said.

Udall, Kerry spar over Russia and China

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) expressed strong skepticism about a potential U.S. military strike in Syria and sparred with Secretary of State John F. Kerry over whether the U.S. should instead be pushing Russia, China and other countries shielding the Syrian government from the consequences of its actions to join an international effort to condemn recent violence.

“We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike, and we need to know whether we exhausted all diplomatic and economic sanction options to affect Syria’s behavior,” Udall said during the hearing.

“I see this potential bombing campaign as a potential next step towards full-fledged war,” he said later. “We’ve been here before.”

Udall then engaged in a testy exchange with Kerry, suggesting the U.S. had not pushed Russia and China strongly enough for standing in the way of a United Nations resolution condemning actions taken by Bashar al-Assad.

At one point Udall said: “I don’t believe that we should have given up so easily on using the United Nations, using…”

Kerry interrupted him: “We haven’t given up.”

“Yes, we have,” Udall said. “We haven’t — we haven’t taken Russia to task. We haven’t taken China to task. And that’s what we should be pointing out at this point.”

Kerry faces tough questions from Democrats

The most intense exchanges of the day so far have come between Secretary of State John Kerry and two of the panel’s Democrats.

The reason: Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who both serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, just happen to be two of the more skeptical Senate Democrats when it comes to authorization of force against Syria.

In fact, The Fix’s latest whip count shows they are two of just five Senate Democrats who currently “lean no” on the authorization vote.

Other skeptics on the panel include Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho.). Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has expressed his opposition.

Otherwise, the committee’s members are more neutral or supportive of action.

Menendez: New use of force resolution coming soon

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the Foreign Relations Committee is still working with Senate Democratic leadership on wording for a new version of a resolution seeking authorization for U.S. military action in Syria.

In response to a question from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Menendez said the resolution is being rewritten “in a way that would allow them to have the maximum ability to succeed in that action by the same token, tailor it sufficiently so that this is not an open-ended engagement and specifically not with American troops on the ground. We’re not there yet. It is our aspiration to try to get there before the end of the day and then to look forward to the possibility of a markup tomorrow. We’ll see if we can get there.”

McCain to Teresa Heinz Kerry: 'Sorry for what I'm about to do to John'

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) jousted with his old colleague, Secretary of State John Kerry, a little.

McCain began his questioning by addressing Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and joking, “I’m sorry for what I’m about to do to John.”

The exchange didn’t wind up being all that contentious, though McCain at one point did suggest Kerry curtail his remarks on one issue so that they could move on to more important questions.

“I thought all your questions were important,” Kerry joked.

(Secretary Kerry acknowledged his wife’s presence as he began his testimony, noting that it was her first public appearance since a health scare in July. Heinz Kerry was briefly hospitalized for an undisclosed health reason. She also attended the secretary’s confirmation hearing in January.)

Kerry says delay in military action actually helps

Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed concerns that the Obama administration’s decision to seek congressional authorization will hurt whatever action results by allowing the Syrian government to prepare for what’s coming.

“In fact, we’re not losing anything by waiting, and I personally believe there are advantages,” Kerry said. ”This does not in any way deteriorate the fundamental mission of degrading and deterring the use of chemical weapons.”

Kerry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the extra time allows the Obama administration to rally support for the effort from both the American people and other countries.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) drew the somewhat testy response from Kerry. Before this comment, Flake asked why a president would seek congressional authority for an action that he had previously said he had the authority to take.

Kerry expressed astonishment at the question.

“It’s somewhat surprising to me that a member of Congress — particularly one on the Foreign Relations Committee — is going to question the president fulfilling the vision of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution,” Kerry said.

Following Kerry’s response, Flake said he “would have to suspend disbelief” to believe that delaying a decision on military action doesn’t hurt the eventual strike.

How many rebels support al-Qaeda?

Earlier, Gen. Martin Dempsey said the “path to a resolution” in the Syrian civil war was through supporting the “moderate” opposition.

But defining who fits into that “moderate” category is a pertinent and potentially difficult issue given the alleged role of al-Qaeda sympathizers joining the insurgency.

Sen. Ron. Johnson (R-Wis.), asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if the Obama administration has produced a breakdown of the number of moderates and the number of extremists among opposition forces.

“I have seen documents that lay that out,” he said.

The public, however, won’t get to see the figures. He’s saving those for tomorrow’s closed session.

Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were also asked for an estimate of the total size of rebel forces.

Neither could recall one, although they said the intelligence services have come up with a figure. Reports suggest the rebels claim to have more than 200,000 fighters.

Coons signals he's willing to vote for military action

After saying over the weekend that he was undecided, Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) used his turn to ask questions to suggest he’ll support military action in Syria — so long as it “responds to America’s legitimate concerns” and allows the U.S. military to respond quickly.

“We have in this instance, a clear violation of a long-standing, global red line,” Coons said of the use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. “In my view… we face a risk here if we do not act,” he added later.

Coons used his time to ask questions about the length of time it would take to commit a military strike and the scope of such an attack.

“I would not urge an excessively pinpointed congressionally-mandated set of targets,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said at one point. “I think they [the military], the generals need some latitude here. … But I think the broad confines and constraints of this particular operations are not hard for us to agree with.”

Kerry says Syrian opposition becoming more moderate

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army General Martin E. Dempsey, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (AFP Photo/Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army General Martin E. Dempsey, US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (AFP Photo/Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski)

Under questioning from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Secretary of State John Kerry said he views the Syrian rebel forces as becoming more moderate as time progresses.

“The opposition has increasingly been defined more by its moderation, more by its breadth of membership,” Kerry said.

Johnson also pressed Kerry on why the United States doesn’t do more to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

“Why wouldn’t we try and do some kind of knockout punch?” Johnson asked.

Kerry responded: “The reason is the president … has made a policy decision that that is not something the United States of America needs to engage in or ought to engage in.”

Kerry noted that such an effort would be much more costly and would take much longer.

Shaheen to Hagel, Dempsey: 'What's changed?'

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) didn’t signal how she might vote on a resolution authorizing military force, which is notable, because she’s one of seven senators on the 18-member committee facing reelection next year and the first of them to get a chance to ask questions.

Shaheen noted that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey had raised concerns about engaging militarily in the Syrian conflict. So she asked, “Why do you feel at this point that it’s appropriate for us to take action? What’s changed?”

“We are dealing with a new set of realities based on facts. I think it is, at least my opinion, that that needs to be addressed,” Hagel said.

“On this issue — that is, the use of chemical weapons — I see a clear linkage to our national security interests and we will find a way to make our use of force effective,” Dempsey told Shaheen.

In addition to Shaheen, five other Democrats on the committee face reelection in 2014: Christopher Coons (Del.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.) and Tom Udall (N.M.). Only one Republican on the panel, Sen. James Risch (Idaho), faces reelection next year.

Rubio says he's skeptical

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the first potential 2016 presidential candidate to speak at today’s hearing, said he remains “skeptical” about the administration’s case for intervention.

“Quite frankly, I’m a bit skeptical that what the president is asking for [is sufficient] for these objectives,” Rubio said.

A few other potential 2016 GOP candidates have already expressed opposition to or reservations about military action, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

For the full recap on their positions, see Ed O’Keefe’s post on The Fix.

Dempsey: Military planning for multiple strike phases

Responding to questioning by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised the possibility of multiple waves of air strikes.

Commenting on military planning, Dempsey said: “I am confident in the capabilities we can bring to bear to deter and degrade [Syria's ability to use chemical weapons].

“It won’t surprise you to learn that we will have not only an initial target set but [also] subsequent target sets should they become necessary.

He said Assad “thinks of chemical weapons as just another weapon in his arsenal and that’s what makes this so very dangerous.”

McCain playing poker on his iPhone

As the hearing continues, our ace photographer Melina Mara reports she spotted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) “passing the time by playing poker on his iPhone during the hearing.”

We eagerly await the photographic proof, but generally trust Melina’s sharp eye.

Update 5:55 p.m.: And here’s the proof:

Senator John McCain plays poker on his IPhone during a U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing where Secretary of State JohnKerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testify concerning the use of force in Syria, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Tuesday, September 3, 2013. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Senator John McCain plays poker on his IPhone during a U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing where Secretary of State JohnKerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey testify concerning the use of force in Syria, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, Tuesday, September 3, 2013. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Update 6:38 p.m.: After the photo made the rounds on Twitter, McCain tweeted the following in response:

Still a long way to go...

90 minutes in, and just 5 of the 18 senators have asked witnesses questions. #Syria

— Ed O’Keefe (@edatpost) September 3, 2013

Kerry says refusal to act will lead to 'greater confrontation'

Secretary of State John Kerry continues to warn members in stark terms against inaction, promising that refusal to act now will lead to much graver decisions in the future with potentially more violence.

“If we don’t respond, we’re going to be back here asking you to respond to some greater confrontation with greater damage and danger because somebody miscalculated as a result of thinking the United States isn’t good for what it says,” Kerry said under questioning from Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

Kerry continued: ”And that will invite much greater danger for the American people, much greater risk for our armed forces, and conceivably much greater chances of a genuine kind of confrontation that we don’t want to see.”

Boxer calls Kerry by his first name

A little reminder of how close Secretary of State John Kerry is to the senators who are questioning him: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) at one point called him by his first name, “John.”

“I’m going to press a little bit harder here, John — uh, Mr. Secretary,” Boxer said.

Boxer, of course, should be keenly aware of using the correct honorifics during Senate hearings. She once criticized a general for addressing her as “ma’am” rather than “senator.”

Kerry shuts door 'as tight as we can' on ground troops

Secretary of State JohnKerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Secretary of State JohnKerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Asked to clarify his comments on the potential deployment of U.S. military forces into Syria, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he wants to “shut that door” as much as possible

“I don’t think there are any of us here that are willing to support the possibility of having combat boots on the ground,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told Kerry as he was wrapping up his round of questions and asked Kerry to clarify what he had said.

In response, Kerry told Corker: “Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can. All I did was raise a hypothetical question about some possibility, and I’m thinking out loud about how to protect America’s interests. Whatever prohibition clarifies it to Congress and the American people, there will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”

Dempsey: Strikes would degrade ability to use chemical weapons

Gen. Martin Dempsey,  chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had been asked to draw up plans to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons in future and to “degrade” their ability to do so.

He declined to provide more details in an open session but acknowledged that the attacks would hurt the regime’s wider military capabilities, potentially affecting the balance of power in the civil war.

Responding to later questions from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Dempsey said he would support providing further assistance to the “moderate opposition” in Syria.

“The path to a resolution in Syria is through a capable, organized moderate opposition,” he said.

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