Congress reacts to Syria deal, with Democrats praising result and GOP criticizing process

The U.S.-Russia deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal drew varying responses from lawmakers Sunday, with Republicans criticizing the Obama administration’s diplomatic moves while Democrats focused on the outcome.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that President Obama’s threat of force yielded results, leading to the U.S.-Russia agreement.

“It’s no coincidence that after that threat was achieved and made — and after our Foreign Relations Committee, on a bipartisan basis, voted to authorize the use of force — that Russia finally decided it would put some pressure on Syria and get involved,” Levin said, adding, “It is so important that the continuing threat be very readily available.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), also a member of the Armed Services Committee, suggested on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the administration had responded weakly to the alleged chemical attack by the Syrian regime. Obama had said the incident warranted a military strike, but Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during an appearance last week with British Foreign Secretary William Hague that any military action would be “unbelievably small.”

“I think [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad would have said, ‘Look, the Americans took their best shot at me . . . and I’m still here,’ ” Blunt said. “I think Assad’s a lot stronger today than he was two weeks ago.”

The United States and Russia agreed Saturday on a plan to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control, with Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying the deal would be backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria did not comply.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) played down the Obama administration’s role in forging the agreement, saying a “victory lap” would be inappropriate.

“I don’t think this is a time for the White House to be boastful,” McCaul said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I quite frankly think what won the day here is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin looked in his own back yard and realized that these policies that he saw in Egypt and Libya were going to happen in Syria, which could potentially fall to the Muslim Brotherhood and the extremists. He decided it was time to step in and try to fix the problem.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that he would not second-guess the president’s actions. “I look at results, and the result could not be more in line with the president’s objective,” he said. “We’ve gone beyond just deterring the future use of chemical weapons to a plan to actually destroy Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.”

Speaking on “Meet the Press,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned Russia’s intentions with the deal. “There is not a seriousness on the part of the Russians,” he said. “We’re going to see the Russians facilitating the departure of chemical weapons with planeload after planeload of Russian aircraft coming into Damascus full of weapons and devices to kill Syrians.”

McCain said he would have stepped up support for the Free Syrian Army if he were president.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) agreed with McCain during an appearance on “Meet the Press,” saying the United States should increase assistance for “vetted, moderate Syrian opposition” forces. He said the administration should keep the threat of force on the table as it tries to persuade the Syrian government to comply with the chemical weapons agreement.

Menendez also said the United States should “pursue Assad for war crimes.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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