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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will headline Congress’s first foray into debating U.S. military action against Syria on Tuesday, with a dual appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry and Hagel will be the only witnesses to appear before the Senate panel at 2:30 p.m. in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building, although additional witnesses may be added.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has assigned “primary jurisdiction” over the Senate debate on Syria to the committee and its chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Reid and Menendez both issued statements over the weekend saying U.S. action against Syria was “justified and necessary.” The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., issued a statement applauding President Barack Obama for seeking congressional approval.

Obama announced Saturday that he decided to strike against Syrian government forces in response to an alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that he said killed more than 1,000 people. However, Obama said he would seek authorization from Congress when it returns from recess on Sept. 9. Public opinion polls have shown Americans are closely divided on whether a Syrian strike is called for.

While the full House and Senate won’t return for another week, hearing and briefings are already beginning. A classified briefing for about 100 lawmakers was held Sunday, and Obama met on Monday with two key Republicans — Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — who have been pushing for broader military action beyond a limited strike.

In response to concerns from some congressmen about the draft of a Syria resolution that Obama has sent to Congress, Reid and Menendez are considering narrowing the scope of the resolution to establish an expiration point and explicit prohibition of U.S. ground troops in the conflict.

Reid issued a statement Saturday saying that a final, full Senate vote on the issue would take place “no later than the week of Sept. 9.” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House won't return earlier than the week of the 9th.

Political observers on Monday said Obama has an uphill sales job to do in terms of winning over public opinion, with some suggesting a prime-time address from the Oval Office to get Americans’ attention.

“The case needs to be made why it’s in the national interest of the United States to take action. It’s not self-evident,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “Humanitarian impulses aren’t enough. There are many causes in the world that don’t call for U.S. action. That’s most important. The administration either hasn’t bothered to make that case, or hasn’t had time.”

On Sunday, Kerry, a former senator, appeared on five television networks to argue the administration’s case for military action. Kerry called the evidence of a gas attack "overwhelming" and expressed confidence that Congress will back the president.

"We don't contemplate that Congress is going to vote 'no,'" Kerry said.

Kerry repeatedly said Obama has the legal authority to act even if Congress withholds its approval. However, he said Obama believes the U.S. "would act with greater moral authority and greater strength" with congressional approval.

But Baker said such a public relations outreach “is only part of the selling job,” since most Americans don’t even watch the Sunday morning political talk shows.

He also said the weeklong delay before there are any final congressional votes will inevitably aid critics and allow time for opposition to build up against the idea of U.S. action.

“It helps the opposition in all senses,” Baker said. “It helps the domestic opposition, and it obviously buys time for Syria.”

Perhaps the most damaging assessment to Obama's hopes came from the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, who told "CNN Sunday" he would personally vote against military action and predicted that Congress would as well.

But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said he believed Congress will "rise to the occasion."

"This is a national security issue," Rogers said. "This isn't about Barack Obama versus the Congress, this isn't about Republicans versus Democrats ... I think the Congress will rise to its Article 1 constitutional responsibilities to provide for the general defense of the United States, but it is going to take that healthy debate to get there."

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday he doubted the House would support Obama, saying the vote would be "difficult" and suggesting that the president has abdicated leadership by going to Congress.

rushing.jt@stripes.com

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