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.
Some key House Republican leaders announced their support for the Syria use of force resolution Tuesday.
The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House expressed strong support Tuesday for a U.S. military strike against Syria, offering crucial congressional backing for President Obama’s request for authorization to use force in response to what they and the administration say was a devastating chemical weapons attack last month.
Speaking to reporters after a White House meeting with Obama and other top congressional leaders, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “I’m going to support the president’s call for action; I believe that my colleagues should support this call for action.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he intends “to vote to provide the president of the United States the option to use military force in Syria.”
Also expressing support for a strike against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She said Assad had acted far outside the norms of civilized behavior by launching an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people, including hundreds of children, on the outskirts of Damascus.
“The United States for our entire history has stood up for democracy and freedom around the world,” Boehner said after the White House meeting. “The use of these weapons have to be responded to, and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. . . . This is something that the United States as a country needs to do.”
Boehner expressed appreciation that Obama has reached out to lawmakers and sought congressional support.
The House Republican leader spoke after Obama said at the start of the meeting that he was “confident” he could assuage lawmakers’ concerns about a U.S. military strike. He also expressed willingness to revise a resolution authorizing the use of force as long as his goals are met.
Opening the meeting with top lawmakers of both parties from the House and Senate, Obama said his plan to launch cruise missile and possible aircraft strikes against Assad’s forces “fits into a broader strategy” of strengthening the Syrian opposition and ultimately driving Assad from power.
Public opinion continues to be a hurdle for the Obama Administration as it presses its case for military action in Syria.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows nearly six in 10 Americans oppose missile strikes in Syria as a response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
Perhaps most illustrative: The opposition is very bipartisan, with both Republicans and Democrats opposing them by a double-digit margin.
In December, 63 percent of Americans said they would support military action if Syria used chemical weapons on its people. Now, despite the administration’s “high confidence” that the Syrian government did just that, Americans remain opposed to military action.
Update: A new poll from the Pew Research Center also shows more opposition than support for airstrikes: 48-29.
Protesters with the anti-war group Code Pink are in the hearing room and expected to attempt to interrupt the proceedings at least once during the hearing.
Code Pink founder and leader Medea Benjamin was the first member of the general public in line for a seat at the hearing. She smiled broadly as she passed U.S. Capitol Police officers, who in the next several minutes may be instructed to remove her and fellow group members from the room.
Benjamin repeatedly interrupted President Obama’s speech in May on national security and drone policy in May.
Skepticism is widespread in Congress as it confronts its choice about whether to authorize the use of force in Syria.
According to our constantly evolving vote count over at The Fix, just 20 senators and 15 House members are clearly on record in support of military action, while many more have expressed skepticism or opposition in both chambers.
In the House in particular, nearly as many members are saying they’ll vote no or are skeptical (103 combined) as are saying they are undecided or supportive (109.)
Here’s the current breakdown:
There are 18 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and they all appear to be in attendance today.
The committee is led by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), while Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is the ranking Republican member.
Other Democrats on the committee: Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.); Benjamin Cardin (Md.); Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.); Christopher Coons (Del.); Richard Durbin (Ill.); Tom Udall (N.M.); Christopher Murphy (Conn.); Tim Kaine (Va.); and Edward J. Markey (Mass.).
Other Republicans on the panel are: James E. Risch (Idaho); Marco Rubio (Fla.); Ron Johnson (Wis.); Jeff Flake (Ariz.); John McCain (Ariz.); John Barrasso (Wyo.); and Rand Paul (Ky.).
Considering this list of senators, pay special attention to the comments of Rubio and Paul, who are widely considered leading 2016 GOP presidential candidates.
Also remember: Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry are former chairmen of the committee, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also once served on the committee as a Republican senator from Nebraska.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) is not a member of the committee, but is sitting in one of the first rows observing the proceedings. Aides say he wanted to attend and hear the testimony of administration officials in person. He is seated next to well-known GOP political consultant Ana Navarro.
It’s a big day for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is chairing his first significant, high-profile hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez took the chairmanship from John F. Kerry, who stepped down in January to become secretary of state.
“We convene this hearing, as we have convened many before, to make one of the most difficult decisions we are tasked to make: the authorization of the use of American military power — this time in Syria — to respond to the horrific chemical attack of August 21,” he said at the start of the hearing.
In his prepared written remarks, Menendez said that the decision lawmakers will make in the coming days “will be among the most difficult any of us will be asked to make. But it is our role as representatives of the American people to make it, to put aside political differences and personal ideologies, forget partisanship and preconceptions, forget the polls, politics, and personal consequences. It is a moment for a profile in courage and to do what one knows is right.”
As he concluded, Menendez welcomed back Kerry and Hagel. The secretary of defense served on the committee when he was a Republican senator from Nebraska.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said a big reason members are concerned about the use of force resolution is that they don’t trust the Obama administration to implement it.
“One of the problems that members have … is while we make policy, you implement it,” he said. “And the implementation of this is very important. I think there have been mixed signals about what implementation is going to mean.”
Corker also pushed for the focus to also be on helping moderate opposition forces in Syria, expressing disappointment that it hasn’t been a part of the administration’s policy and the current debate.
“The Assad regime — and only undeniably the Assad regime — unleashed a chemical attack” on Syrian civilians, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told senators Tuesday.
“Only the most willful desire to avoid reality can assert this did not occur as described, or that the regime did not do it. It did happen and the Assad regime did it,” he added later.
Kerry made an emotional, forceful argument — arguably one of the most direct of his decades-long career — and sought to assuage the doubts of his former congressional colleagues, many of whom are still skeptical about authorizing military force.
“We know these things beyond a reasonable doubt, it is the standard by which we send people to jail for the rest of their lives,” he told senators, noting that many of them are former lawyers.
Kerry also sought to appeal to lawmakers who remember the debate over authorizing military force in Iraq. Turning to his colleague, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Kerry said they remember Iraq “in a special way because we were here for that vote. And so we are especially sensitive, Chuck and I, to never again ask a member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence. That’s why our intelligence community has scrubbed and re-scrubbed the intelligence.”
Kerry said that the intelligence community has collected physical proof of the attacks, including “evidence of where the rockets came from and when. Not one rocket landed in regime-controlled territory — not one. All of them landed in opposition control or contested areas. We have a map, physical evidence, showing every geographical point of impact and that is concrete,” he said.
Many in Congress are leaning towards a ‘no’ vote because of fears that targeted air strikes could quickly spiral into broader military action.
In an effort to combat that, two House Democrats, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), are drafting a resolution that would impose strict limits on the nature of the force President Obama would be authorized to use.
My colleague Karen Tumulty reports on the details of the draft, which Van Hollen and Connolly are hoping to circulate later today:
As proposed by Van Hollen and Connolly, the resolution would have four major components: a legally binding stipulation that no ground troops would be deployed; a provision that would limit the president’s authority to a single round of strikes, unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government uses chemical weapons again; a relatively short time limit for the strikes, probably of less than 60 days, and a provision that would narrowly define the goal of the operation to prevent further use of chemical weapons.
That fourth provision would, for instance, prevent Obama from using the authorization as part of a broader campaign to degrade the capability of the Syrian military or to prevent the Syrians from stockpiling chemical weapons.
Here are more excerpts from Kerry’s prepared remarks, as provided by the State Department:
As we convene for this debate, the world is watching not just to see what we decide. It is watching to see how we make this decision – whether in this dangerous world we can still make our government speak with one voice. They want to know if America will rise to this moment and make a difference.…
I repeat here again today: 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.
I remember Iraq. Secretary Hagel remembers Iraq. We were here for that vote. And so we are especially sensitive to never again asking any Member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence. That is why our intelligence community has scrubbed and re-scrubbed the evidence. We have declassified unprecedented amounts of information.
We can tell you beyond any reasonable doubt that our evidence proves the Assad regime prepared this attack, warning its forces to use gas masks. We have physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when. Not one rocket landed in regime-held territory. All of them landed in opposition-controlled or contested territory. We have a map showing every geographical point of impact – and that is concrete.
Some have tried to suggest the debate we are having today is about President Obama’s red line. They’re wrong. This debate is about the world’s red line – about humanity’s red line – a line that anyone with a conscience should draw.
And as we debate, the world watches. As you decide, the world wonders – not whether Assad’s regime executed the worst chemical-weapons attack of the 21st century – that fact is beyond question. The world wonders whether the United States of America will consent, through silence, to standing aside while this kind of brutality is allowed to happen without consequence.
Syria is important because quite simply, the risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting. If we don’t take a stand here today, we are more likely to face far greater risks to our security and a far greater likelihood of conflict in the future.
Why? Because as confidently as we know what happened in Damascus on August 21, we know that Assad will read our silence as a signal that he can use his weapons with impunity.
And in creating impunity, we will be creating opportunity – the opportunity for other dictators and terrorists to pursue their own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.
This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.
We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act. We must protect our security, protect our values, and lead the world with conviction that is clear.