WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey on Tuesday pressed for U.S. military action against Syria before the first congressional panel to delve into the issue.

Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey testified for three and a half hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which convened a special hearing a week before Congress is scheduled to formally return from its August recess.

Kerry made the same case he has made publicly for days: that the U.S. has a duty to punish the use of chemical weapons, as the Syrian regime is believed to have done most recently on Aug. 21 in a suburb of Damascus. President Barack Obama has cited reports that an estimated 1,400 civilians were killed, and on Saturday, he vowed to pursue congressional authorization for a U.S. missile strike against Syria.

Obama got a huge public relations boost for the idea Monday from GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., surprised many in Washington by announcing their support.

Kerry dominated the hearing, fielding almost all of the committee’s questions. He took pains to distinguish Syria from Iraq, acknowledging that "faulty intelligence" prompted the U.S. to launch that war. Instead, Kerry argued that curbing weapons of mass destruction is in the country’s national interest, vowing that there will be no ground troops and no involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war. But his most prominent argument was that not acting against Syrian President Bashar Assad would jeopardize national security by sending a signal of permissiveness of weapons of mass destruction.

“If you’re Assad, and the U.S. steps back from this moment, what is the message?” Kerry said. “Iran is hoping you’ll look the other way. Our inaction will surely give them a permission slip. Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence will carry the day… If we don’t respond, we’re going to be back here, asking you to respond in some greater way.”

Kerry went on to say that the purpose of a U.S. strike would be to “degrade and deter” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future, and he ruled out the possibility of such an action leading to war.

Hagel acknowledged the country’s ambivalence toward military action in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but like Kerry, he said Assad’s regime could feel empowered to carry out bigger-scale attacks.

“There are always risks in taking action, but there are also risks with inaction,” Hagel said. “Every witness here today – Secretary Kerry, Gen. Dempsey and myself – has served in uniform, fought in war and seen its ugly realities up close. We understand that a country faces few decisions as grave as using military force. We are not unaware of the costs and ravages of war. But we also understand that America must protect its people and its national interests.”

The Obama administration already has sent to Congress a resolution authorizing U.S. force against Syria, and it has been holding briefings and conference calls for congressmen for several days to circulate intelligence and other evidence that it says prove Assad’s regime was behind the attacks. As the effort continues, Kerry and Hagel are scheduled to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

In the wake of the hearings and briefings, some congressmen have discussed limiting the resolution by setting an expiration date or explicitly prohibiting the use of U.S. troops. Questioned about that on Tuesday, Kerry said it is “preferable” that there be no such prohibition, given the potential scenario of soldiers being needed to secure a chemical weapons cache from falling into the hands of anti-U.S. groups.

“I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president,” Kerry said. “That is the only scenario I can imagine. But the bottom line is that the president has no intention of using ground troops. Period.”

That prompted the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, to question Kerry more closely about a potential role for U.S. troops, saying he needed more assurance.

Kerry responded, “All I did was raise a hypothetical situation, and I’m thinking out loud… I don’t want anything coming out of this hearing about the door being open to that, so let’s shut that door tight.”

Kerry also faced pushback from McCain, who complained that the Syrian regime now has had several days to prepare for a U.S. attack, and who grilled Kerry and Hagel about the planning behind such an attack. McCain signaled that his support for military action is unchanged, but he made it clear he would watch the resolution closely.

"If it's the wrong kind of resolution, it can do just as much damage, in my view," McCain said.

Among other Republicans who expressed skepticism was Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho.

“If this were an attack on one American, it would be a no-brainer,” Risch said. “But I’m reluctant right now.”

Like many, Risch questioned what would be accomplished by a limited cruise missile strike against Syria that allows Assad to stay in power.

Kerry answered, “Assad may be able to crawl out from a hole and say ‘I survived,’ but there’s no way he’ll be able to say he’s better off.”

Kerry faced skepticism from some Democrats as well. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, for example, called the U.S. intelligence "soft" and suggested he would only support a strictly worded resolution authorizing military force.

Code Pink protesters briefly stopped Wednesday’s hearing twice during Kerry's remarks. Shouting, “No war in Syria,” the protesters were quickly ejected from the hearing by Capitol police.

In a rare moment, Kerry pointedly addressed the disruption, recalling his own famous appearance before the committee as a 27-year-old Vietnam War veteran.

“I have very similar feelings to that protester,” Kerry said. “That’s exactly why we’re here, to have this debate.”

Kerry appeared at Wednesday’s hearing with his wife, Teresa, and mentioned that it was her first public appearance since being released from the hospital earlier this summer for treatment for a seizure. Twitter: @jtr1

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