Syria Debate Splinters GOP Though Bipartisan Resolution Remains the Goal

Billy House And Michael Catalini, National Journal
Sept. 4, 2013, 5:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — While the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee could get down to draft­ing a new bi­par­tis­an res­ol­u­tion on Syr­ia on Wed­nes­day, the House will kick off its own de­bate on wheth­er to au­thor­ize mil­it­ary force amid clear di­vi­sions between Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers and con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists.

Dur­ing the open­ing round of the Sen­ate pan­el’s de­bate on Tues­day, For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., said he was work­ing with rank­ing mem­ber Bob Cork­er, R-Tenn., on the text of a bi­par­tis­an res­ol­u­tion and that the com­mit­tee could con­sider it as soon as Wed­nes­day dur­ing a closed meet­ing with the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

Men­en­dez did not give de­tails of what would be changed from the res­ol­u­tion sent to Con­gress by the White House, but he said it would provide the “max­im­um abil­ity” for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to meet the goals it hopes to achieve in Syr­ia while pre­vent­ing an “open-ended en­gage­ment” or the use of Amer­ic­an troops on the ground.

On the House side, even as Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., said they will vote to au­thor­ize a lim­ited strike, a Boehner spokes­man em­phas­ized there re­mains a tough “up­hill battle to pass a res­ol­u­tion” and un­der­scored that the speak­er ex­pects the White House — not his lead­er­ship team — to lead the whip­ping ef­fort for votes.

The mixed mes­sage came as in­flu­en­tial con­ser­vat­ive policy or­gan­iz­a­tions were seek­ing to con­vince rank-and-file law­makers to op­pose Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­quest for a mil­it­ary strike. One group, Her­it­age Ac­tion — the polit­ic­al arm of the Her­it­age Found­a­tion — dir­ectly re­buffed Boehner and Can­tor, ar­guing that a vi­tal U.S. in­terest is not at stake in Syr­ia. De­clin­ing to say wheth­er the group would score law­makers on the Syr­ia res­ol­u­tion, Her­it­age Ac­tion spokes­man Dan Holler ar­gued that Con­gress faces more press­ing do­mest­ic is­sues like the farm bill and the debt ceil­ing.

The con­tin­ued re­luct­ance, skep­ti­cism, or op­pos­i­tion of vari­ous seg­ments of law­makers was fully on dis­play at Tues­day’s Sen­ate hear­ing as Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey made the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case for re­tali­at­ing against Syr­i­an lead­ers for us­ing chem­ic­al weapons in a bru­tal civil war. For now, it ap­pears too early to pre­dict the out­come of any vote, which could come next week.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has said he thinks it would be a mis­take to get in­volved in Syr­ia, made his skep­ti­cism clear in ques­tion­ing Kerry. Paul asked, if Con­gress votes down the war res­ol­u­tion — though he said he didn’t be­lieve that will hap­pen — would the ad­min­is­tra­tion not go for­ward with an ac­tion in Syr­ia? “You’re mak­ing a joke of us” if this is not real, Paul said.

Kerry re­spon­ded that he doesn’t know what the pres­id­ent’s de­cision would be, that he in­tends to win this vote, but that he still would have con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity to take ac­tion if he does not. “I don’t be­lieve he does,” Paul re­spon­ded.

Asked after the hear­ing if there would be a fili­buster, Paul answered af­firm­at­ively, say­ing he be­lieved 60 votes would be re­quired to con­sider the res­ol­u­tion in the Sen­ate. But pressed on wheth­er he would fili­buster on his own, as he did for 13 hours earli­er this year on Obama’s nom­in­ee for in­tel­li­gence dir­ect­or, Paul cracked that he would have to check his shoes and de­cide if he could hold out that long without a bath­room break.

A num­ber of lib­er­al Demo­crats are openly ad­voc­at­ing in­ter­ven­tion, some on hu­man­it­ari­an grounds. Sens. Bar­bara Box­er of Cali­for­nia and Ben Cardin of Mary­land are among those who have joined with House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., in say­ing they sup­port a lim­ited op­er­a­tion.

“I know there is tre­mend­ous re­luct­ance to not get in­volved in an­oth­er mil­it­ary ac­tion,” Box­er said. “I will sup­port this tar­get ef­fort, but not a blank check.” Cardin said: “It’s clear we have to re­spond, and a mil­it­ary re­sponse is jus­ti­fied.”

Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key, D-Mass., asked Kerry wheth­er it would be wise for the United States to wait for ana­lys­is and data from the United Na­tions in­spect­ors “to en­sure a sig­nal sent to in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity as to the vera­city.” Kerry re­spon­ded that it could take two to four weeks for the U.N. to fin­ish its ana­lys­is, and that there is already a suf­fi­cient level of con­firm­a­tion that a chem­ic­al at­tack took place. Kerry also said the U.N. man­date will only al­low the in­spect­ors to say a chem­ic­al weapons at­tack did take place: “They have no man­date to as­sign blame, who did it.”

Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons, D-Del., told Kerry there is a “wear­i­ness of war” among his con­stitu­ents, who worry that the United States could be drawn in­to a civil war “that we don’t quite un­der­stand.” But Coons ad­ded that after re­view­ing clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion provided to law­makers Tues­day morn­ing, he be­lieves there has been a clear vi­ol­a­tion of a long­stand­ing glob­al stand­ard of be­ha­vi­or, and “that we face a real risk here if we do not act.”

Coons says he still pon­ders how ex­actly a war res­ol­u­tion should be writ­ten, though. And Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., ex­pressed sim­il­ar sen­ti­ments, telling Kerry he hoped the White House would co­oper­ate in draft­ing res­ol­u­tion lan­guage, in bi­par­tis­an fash­ion, “that does not ex­pand au­thor­iz­a­tion bey­ond what is ne­ces­sary.”

Some for­eign policy hawks in the Re­pub­lic­an Party are also call­ing for the use of mil­it­ary force; some even say the goal should be to over­throw Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad. And they even seem ir­rit­ated by the delay.

“If we re­ject this res­ol­u­tion, doesn’t this send a ser­i­ously bad mes­sage “¦ en­cour­age our en­emies and dis­cour­age our friends?” asked Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., dur­ing the hear­ing. Mc­Cain also told Kerry that it’s “ri­dicu­lous” to think that when you tell the en­emy be­fore­hand you’re go­ing to at­tack them that they are not go­ing to dis­perse and move as­sets and make it harder.

In his own re­marks Tues­day, Obama again stressed to re­port­ers that the mil­it­ary ac­tion he en­vi­sions is based on the “high con­fid­ence” that As­sad’s re­gime used chem­ic­al weapons in an at­tack against his own people last month and that the U.S. ac­tion would be a “lim­ited, pro­por­tion­al step.” Obama ad­ded that he was con­fid­ent that Con­gress will au­thor­ize ac­tion, “so long as we are ac­com­plish­ing what needs to be ac­com­plished — which is to send a clear mes­sage to As­sad de­grad­ing his cap­ab­il­it­ies to use chem­ic­al weapons.”

“This is not the time for arm­chair isol­a­tion­ism,” Kerry said dur­ing the hear­ing, which was in­ter­rup­ted briefly by some mild protests, in­clud­ing by one demon­strat­or who shouted out that no one wants war as Cap­it­ol Po­lice car­ried her out of the room.

Asked wheth­er the cost of an op­er­a­tion in Syr­ia con­trib­uted to the group’s op­pos­i­tion, Her­it­age Ac­tion’s Holler said it was one factor, but not the prin­cip­al one. A mis­sion in Syr­ia could be used to roll back spend­ing caps agreed to un­der the Budget Con­trol Act of 2011, Holler said.

That did not sit well with all Re­pub­lic­ans, though.

“It’s pretty strik­ing that Her­it­age has de­cided to go full liber­tari­an un­der [Her­it­age Found­a­tion Pres­id­ent Jim] De­Mint and aban­don four dec­ades of lead­ing the Re­agan ‘peace-through-strength’ caucus,” a seni­or GOP aide said.

The liber­tari­an Cato In­sti­tute also pub­lished pa­pers crit­ic­al of an at­tack on the Syr­i­an re­gime, ar­guing that get­ting in­volved in Syr­ia would “en­snare Amer­ic­ans in a com­pletely un­ne­ces­sary con­flict.”

Doug Ban­dow, a seni­or fel­low at Cato, poin­ted out that Boehner spent eight years of his con­gres­sion­al ca­reer un­der Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, whose in­ter­ven­tion­ist policies led to war in Ir­aq. Tak­ing an ag­gress­ive stance on Syr­ia, then, fits with that for­eign policy point of view, Ban­dow ar­gued.

Roughly four in­form­al di­vi­sions ex­ist in the House GOP con­fer­ence, Ban­dow said. There is a small corps of mem­bers who will align them­selves with Boehner and Can­tor; there are hawks, like Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who will sup­port the strike; and there are liber­tari­ans, like Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who will op­pose the meas­ure on philo­soph­ic­al grounds. But the largest con­tin­gent, Ban­dow ar­gues, is a prag­mat­ic group of mem­bers who two years ago were privately skep­tic­al about Afgh­anistan but re­mained pub­licly sup­port­ive of the war.

“It’s hard to pre­dict,” Ban­dow said. “The ques­tion is, ‘To what ex­tent can they be con­vinced that you can be half-preg­nant in this case?’ “

Boehner and Can­tor both made their sup­port known after they joined oth­er law­makers in a meet­ing with Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden at the White House. Oth­er law­makers at the meet­ing in­cluded Pelosi, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., and a num­ber of com­mit­tee lead­ers from both parties.

Boehner told re­port­ers at the White House after the meet­ing, “Only the United States has the cap­ab­il­ity and the ca­pa­city to stop As­sad and to warn oth­ers around the world that this type of be­ha­vi­or is not go­ing to be tol­er­ated.”

“I ap­pre­ci­ate the pres­id­ent reach­ing out to me and my col­leagues in the Con­gress over the last couple of weeks. I also ap­pre­ci­ate the pres­id­ent ask­ing the Con­gress to sup­port him in this ac­tion,” Boehner said. “This is something that the United States, as a coun­try, needs to do. I’m go­ing to sup­port the pres­id­ent’s call for ac­tion. I be­lieve that my col­leagues should sup­port this call for ac­tion.

Later, Boehner put the re­spons­ib­il­ity for drum­ming up sup­port for the au­thor­iz­a­tion res­ol­u­tion on the pres­id­ent. “Every­one un­der­stands that it is an up­hill battle to pass a res­ol­u­tion, and the speak­er ex­pects the White House to provide an­swers to mem­bers’ ques­tions and take the lead on any whip­ping ef­fort,” Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said.

Can­tor an­nounced in a state­ment, “I in­tend to vote to provide the pres­id­ent of the United States the op­tion to use mil­it­ary force in Syr­ia.”

“While the au­thor­iz­ing lan­guage will likely change, the un­der­ly­ing real­ity will not,” Can­tor said. “Amer­ica has a com­pel­ling na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest to pre­vent and re­spond to the use of weapons of mass de­struc­tion, es­pe­cially by a ter­ror­ist state such as Syr­ia, and to pre­vent fur­ther in­stabil­ity in a re­gion of vi­tal in­terest to the United States.”

Pelosi, who already has backed mil­it­ary ac­tion — and has even said she does not be­lieve con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion was ne­ces­sary — told re­port­ers out­side the White House that she be­lieves rank-and-file law­makers will fol­low their lead­ers in sup­port “based on the evid­ence, the in­tel­li­gence, the na­tion­al in­terest that is at stake.”

For his part, Mc­Con­nell said the pub­lic would be­ne­fit from more in­form­a­tion about the pres­id­ent’s plans. Wheth­er Mc­Con­nell will take the same tack as Boehner re­mains un­clear.

“You likely won’t see the same swift push by Sen­ate lead­ers as you saw today in the House,” said a Sen­ate GOP aide.

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