It’s complicated. It’s unpredictable. Not unlike the logistics of actually taking military action against Syria.
The exact wording of an authorizing resolution has emerged as a complex hitch in the Obama administration’s campaign to convince Congress to send a war-weary nation into another military action. Much of the debate turns on precise legislative language, and at least one unanswerable question: What will happen after a strike?
Like almost everything else during this congressional session, even if one chamber reaches consensus on how to amend President Obama’s initial war-powers proposal, there is no certainty the other chamber will simply adopt the same language. In this case, the Democratic-led Senate will likely go first. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday advanced a version of a resolution to the full Senate, which is expected to debate the measure on the floor next week when lawmakers return.
But the Republican-controlled House may well head down its own path. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and others on his panel openly pondered the contents of a possible House bill on Wednesday during the chamber’s first public hearing into action against Syria. Some have even questioned whether the House will even take up the issue.
Whatever happens, a U.S. attack on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for using chemical weapons still faces opposition from lawmakers on both the left and the right.
The Senate resolution, for example, passed in a tight 10-7 committee vote that blurred party lines. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., voted “present.” Three Republicans—Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona—joined the majority in backing the measure. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., voted with five committee Republicans against the measure.
“This is a tightly tailored authorization,” Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., pronounced of the final product. But Wednesday’s debate and vote in the Senate committee laid bare the yawning political divide within both parties.
One hurdle was McCain’s objection to an absence of muscular language in the Menendez-Corker version of the resolution released late Tuesday that McCain said he and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were assured would be in the measure. McCain told reporters he wanted the policy to degrade Assad’s chemical-weapons capability, increase support to resistance forces, and swing “battlefield momentum” away from the dictator.
Eventually McCain got his way, with the committee approving his amendment by voice vote. “There is no strategy without that, except for significant attacking of facilities that deliver chemical weapons,” McCain said.
In the House, “right now, we’re watching what the Senate does,” one senior leadership aide said on Wednesday. But when the House returns next week, the aide said, there are two primary options: Seek a vote on whatever resolution the Senate passes or pursue action on a separate, House-written version. Either way, leadership aides in the House have predicted an uphill battle for passage.
Moreover, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., mentioned during the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that there are rumors the House won’t vote on any resolution. Pressed later about that, a spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen responded in an e-mail, “Ileana says members have shared the rumor with her that the Senate would vote but that the House might not. It is someone else’s rumor. She doesn’t have any more background.”
The leadership aide did not pan the idea that the House could withhold action, but also would not confirm that the option was being seriously considered. The aide did point out that one-chamber passage—or even just approval of a lesser, “sense of Congress” resolution—would not carry the official weight of full congressional authorization.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution focusing on defense and foreign policy issues, says the point may be moot, since “Obama could strike Syria without any congressional approval at all.”
Furthermore, O’Hanlon said, no matter what Congress does, the real test facing the administration “is how effective any operation proves—and how limited it manages—to remain. Those outcomes will determine the public reaction more than anything.”
Outside of the committee action, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said the U.S. should act in Syria; the views of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are not as clearly defined. Asked on Wednesday whether McConnell would support the resolution passed in committee, an aide pointed to McConnell’s comments from Tuesday calling on the administration to share more information with the public and Congress.
Senate leaders also attended a closed-door briefing with administration officials, including the deputy national security adviser, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Further classified briefings will continue all week, the aide said, with a bicameral briefing on Thursday and a Senate-only meeting set for Friday.
Over in the House, Royce and other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee were raising their own concerns about the potential ramifications of a strike.
Testifying before the House panel as they had Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey continued to press lawmakers Wednesday for authorization to use limited military force.
“We are not asking America to go to war,” Kerry said at one point, seeking to deflect questions about the potential escalation of hostilities if the United States uses force.
“We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground … we have no intention of assuming responsibility for Assad’s civil war,” Kerry said. But Dempsey later appeared less than thrilled about having to discuss efforts to impose limits on the administration’s time frame for the operation. Senate and House draft proposals would limit it to 60 days.
“Militarily, the broader the resolution, the more options [it] can provide,” Dempsey curtly responded at one point. He then reminded lawmakers that as part of the original proposal from the White House, “The president gave quite clear guidance that this will be a limited and focused operation, not an open-ended operation.”
Later, some lawmakers questioned whether a House resolution should have some type of trigger wording allowing for additional responses if Assad were to use chemical weapons again. Also discussed was whether a provision should also be included to explicitly limit any action to punishment for the use of chemical weapons—and to impact the balance of power in Syria’s ongoing conflict.
Royce noted from the start of the hearing that Congress has acted several times in history to authorize a president to use force. But, he said, “One thing different here is that the administration’s proposal supports a U.S. military response against a country in civil war. Needless to say, this complicates the consideration.”
Royce also asserted the administration’s Syria policy “doesn’t build confidence” and has been adrift “for over two years.” Although the proposed action aims to uphold an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, Royce said he is troubled by the “unfortunate lack of international support … there is no United Nations resolution of support—nor NATO backing.”
He acknowledged that the president has promised a military operation would be limited in scope and duration. But he questioned whether that could be certain. “That’s particularly true if President Obama isn’t aiming to change the situation on the ground,” said Royce. “What are the chances of escalation? Are different scenarios accounted for? If our credibility is on the line, as is argued, what if Assad retaliates?”
But Obama had supporters in the room, too. “I strongly agree with President Obama that the United States must respond to this flagrant violation of international law with a limited military strike,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking Democrat. “We’re talking about the credibility of America as a global power.”
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