Flurry of activity on the Hill as Syrian question moves on several fronts
WASHINGTON — A dizzying day of action Tuesday saw Congress move on multiple fronts to consider a U.S. military strike against Syria, as international events presented a possible diplomatic solution and President Barack Obama prepared to address Americans on prime-time TV.
A proposal made Monday by Russia – that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad turn over its stockpile of chemical weapons for elimination by international forces – dominated the day on Capitol Hill. Syrian officials early Tuesday indicated they would accept the proposal, but its success is uncertain and many congressmen joined Obama Tuesday in expressing skepticism.
The possible breakthrough was the No. 1 topic in floor speeches and committee hearings Tuesday – a day punctuated by Obama meeting privately with Democratic senators and then Republicans at their weekly caucus lunches.
The House Armed Services Committee held a three-hour hearing on the issue Tuesday morning, with testimony from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The committee did not vote on the issue but questioned Kerry and Hagel closely, and sometimes contentiously. Kerry pointedly denied reports that he made an inadvertent remark to reporters on Monday that raised the possibility of the Russian proposal. Kerry said the remark was intentional.
Obama is seeking congressional approval for a military strike against Syria to punish Assad’s regime for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that is believed to have killed 1,400 people. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., postponed a vote originally planned for Wednesday to allow time for negotiations over the Russian proposal, but said Tuesday that the threat of military force was the only reason Syria was considering the proposal, and that such a threat should not be withdrawn.
“If there is a realistic chance to secure Syria’s chemical weapons and prevent further atrocities by the Assad regime, we should not turn our backs on that chance,” Reid said. “But for such a solution to be plausible, the Assad regime must quickly prove that their offer is real and not merely a ploy to delay military action indefinitely.”
Obama and several top Republicans including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. John McCain of Arizona all said Tuesday that they were skeptical the Russian proposal would work, although others seized on it as a potential breakthrough. But because any U.N. resolution would presumably find fault with Syria for the Aug. 21 attack, Russia may block the measure.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is also insisting that the U.S. drop its threat of military action as part of any proposal. The Russians asked, then withdrew a request, for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.
Also Tuesday, Boehner and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., split on the question of authorizing a Syrian strike. Boehner said he still supports Obama’s request for authorization, but McConnell announced his opposition in a floor speech.
McConnell said a military strike risks “tilting” the Syrian civil war and putting into power anti-Assad rebels who are unprepared for the tasks of government. He also called Obama’s authorization request “fundamentally flawed,” and accused the president of “timid, reluctant leadership.”
“I’ve never been an isolationist, and a vote against this resolution should not be confused by anyone as a turn in that direction,” McConnell said. “But just as the most committed isolationist could be convinced of the need for intervention under the right circumstances when confronted with a threat, so too do the internationalists among us believe that all interventions are not created equal. And this proposal just does not stand up.”
At a separate news conference, Boehner noted that Wednesday is the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and maintained that Obama needed to show “a unified front” to Syria. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia announced their support for Obama after a White House meeting with him last week.
However, Boehner said he was “somewhat skeptical” of the Russian proposal, “because of the actors involved.” He did not elaborate.
At the House committee hearing, Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey largely repeated arguments they made last week before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As he did last week, Kerry took charge of the administration’s argument, asserting that failing to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons risks sending a message of weakness to America’s adversaries around the world.
But he opened his remarks by addressing public opinion polls that show most Americans oppose a Syria strike.
“I know what you’re all hearing. The instant reaction of a lot of Americans anywhere in our country is, ‘Whoa, we don’t want to go to war again. We don’t want to go to Iraq. We don’t want to go to Afghanistan. We’ve seen how those turned out.’ I get it,” Kerry said.
“But I can say to you with absolute confidence, the risk of not acting is much greater than the risk of acting... In a world of terrorists and extremists, we would choose to ignore those risks at our peril. We cannot afford to have chemical weapons transformed into the new convenient weapon, the IED, the car bomb, the weapon of everyday use in this world. Neither our country nor our conscience can bear the costs of inaction.”
Kerry also reminded HASC members that the House has already approved legislation that condemns the use of chemical weapons – the Syria Accountability Act, passed in December 2003 and signed by then-president George W. Bush. Kerry told the committee that act means “your word is on the line.”
“That act clearly states that Syria’s chemical weapons threaten the security of the Middle East. That’s in plain writing. It’s in the act. You voted for it. We’ve already decided these chemical weapons are important to the security of our nation,” he said.
Asked if the administration’s request for authorization should be withdrawn in light of the Russian proposal, Kerry said no.
“President Obama will take a hard look at it. But it has to be swift, it has to be real, it has to be verifiable. It cannot be a delaying tactic,” Kerry said. “Absolutely the use of force should not be off the table. Nothing has changed with respect to our request.”
Like Kerry, Hagel was skeptical about the Russian proposal, saying it must be authentic and that the use of military force must remain an option.
“All of us are hopeful that this option could be a real solution to this crisis, yet we must be clear-eyed and ensure it is not a stalling tactic by Syria and its Russian patrons,” Hagel said. “And for this diplomatic option to have a chance of succeeding, the threat of U.S. military action must continue to be very real and credible.”
Both men faced pointed questions from committee members, including Democrats, and their testimony at times grew heated, particularly during questioning from Republican members.
“Ninety-eight percent of my constituents say ‘no,’” said Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss. “I’m a ‘no’ as well. America’s just not buying what you’re selling at this time.”
The testiest exchange was between Kerry and Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican.
“(The Senate) doesn’t have the votes (authorizing a strike). You know that. It’s the truth. Read any newspaper in this country, and you will find that out,” Miller challenged Kerry.
Kerry replied, “Do you want to play politics here, or do you want to put a policy in place? If you want to undermine that, then play the politics… You don’t really want answers, do you?”