WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to authorize President Obama to use limited force against Syria Wednesday, after adopting amendments from Sen. John McCain designed to urge Obama to “change the military equation on the battlefield.”
The Senate resolution would limit hostilities to 60 or 90 days, narrow military action to Syria’s borders and prohibit U.S. troops on Syrian soil. McCain’s proposal didn’t change that scope but urged that the end goal should be “a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.”
The vote was 10-7. Five Republicans and two Democrats voted against it. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voted “present.”
The White House commended senators for “moving swiftly and for working across party lines on behalf of our national security.”
The committee’s consensus followed hours closed-door meetings Wednesday morning, which delayed the start of the committee’s business by nearly three hours. As the Senate panel voted, their House counterparts heard from Secretary of State John Kerry, who appealed to their sense of humanity to stop Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against the resolution, and unsuccessfully sought an amendment that would have reaffirmed Congress’s pre-eminent role in declaring war, as reflected in the 1973 War Powers Act. “The Constitution doesn’t really differentiate between big wars and small wars,” he said. The committee tabled Paul’s amendment by a 14-5 vote.
Paul remains a staunch opponent of an attack on Syria, and had left open the possibility of a filibuster. He said Wednesday that any suggestion he had made a decision to block the resolution with endless debate was “a misinterpretation by the media.”
The committee also rejected an amendment by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., that would have prohibited air and naval forces from being put into Syrian waters or air space. In the end, Udall was the only one to support it. “If we start down this road, we’re going to be running the campaign from here, and as smart as we are, we’re not that smart,” said McCain, R-Ariz. Udall voted against the final resolution.
McCain’s amendments were co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. The McCain-Coons amendments seek a “democratic government in Syria,” despite arguments by the Obama administration that “regime change” is not the goal. And they call for giving military and humanitarian aid to “vetted elements of the Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.”
The committee approved those amendments by a voice vote.
One unresolved issue was what happens after the resolution’s time limit. The president would be authorized to strike for 60 days — and an additional 30 days if he tells Congress it’s necessary. “The question that’s been raised is, what happens on the 91st day? What happens if Assad decides on that 91st day to use chemical weapons again?” asked Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Congress should “make sure Assad understands he can’t just wait us out, use chemical weapons, and face no consequences.”
Democrats who voted against the resolution said the Senate version was much improved over the language the White House suggested, which contained no limits on Obama’s power to rid Syria of chemical weapons. Udall said he feared any action could escalate the Syrian civil war and perhaps expand into regional conflict. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he gagged every time he saw photos of the Syrian victims of chemical weapons but voted no because “I have deep concerns about the limits of American power.”
After the vote, Menendez said the committee action bodes well for passage by the full body. He noted the support of McCain on the right, and Durbin on the left, “and I think that’s a pretty good width as far as the spectrum of views in the United States Senate.” He said the timing of the full Senate vote was “above my pay grade.”
Voting yes were Menendez; Coons; Durbin; McCain; Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Tim Kaine, D-Va., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Voting no were Udall; Murphy; Paul; James Risch, R-Idaho; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; and John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
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