Senators Returning to Hear Obama’s Case for a Syria Strike

President Obama takes questions from the media in the East Room of the White House on June 29, 2011.
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Sept. 2, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s push to per­suade Con­gress to au­thor­ize a strike on Syr­ia presses ahead on Tues­day, as two top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials will make the White House’s case be­fore the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee.

Al­though a num­ber of law­makers have been in the Cap­it­ol for brief­ings with ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, com­mit­tee mem­bers will be re­turn­ing nearly a week be­fore Con­gress is of­fi­cially due to re­turn from its Au­gust re­cess to con­sider Obama’s case to launch a mil­it­ary strike against dic­tat­or Bashar al-As­sad’s re­gime.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel and Chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey will make the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s case to law­makers. Over the Labor Day week­end, Obama said that any strike would be “lim­ited in dur­a­tion and scope.” The mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion would ex­clude “boots on the ground,” the pres­id­ent said.

On Sat­urday, the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­livered the text of an au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of force to Con­gress, seek­ing ap­prov­al “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he de­term­ines to be ne­ces­sary and ap­pro­pri­ate in con­nec­tion with the use of chem­ic­al weapons.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gues that the at­tack is ne­ces­sary to de­ter the pro­lif­er­a­tion of chem­ic­al weapons, which the White House says As­sad used against his people on Aug. 21. The ques­tion of launch­ing an at­tack arose be­cause Obama had drawn a so-called red line at the use of chem­ic­al weapons. Now that gov­ern­ment in­tel­li­gence re­portedly shows that line has been crossed, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­pelled to act.

Wheth­er Obama will win Con­gress’s ap­prov­al re­mains in doubt. Liber­tari­an-lean­ing Re­pub­lic­ans and lib­er­al Demo­crats ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about launch­ing an at­tack over the week­end. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the pres­id­ent pro tem­pore of the Sen­ate, told re­port­ers that the au­thor­iz­a­tion was too broad and would be amended, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., mean­while, cast a pos­sible at­tack as a mis­take dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on Meet the Press.

Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­ers quickly offered sup­port to the pres­id­ent. Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., said mil­it­ary ac­tion would be “jus­ti­fied and ne­ces­sary.”

“I be­lieve the United States has a mor­al ob­lig­a­tion as well as a na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terest in de­fend­ing in­no­cent lives against such at­ro­cit­ies,” Re­id said in a state­ment.

As­sist­ant Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Dick Durbin, D-Ill., praised the pres­id­ent, but he stopped short of call­ing for mil­it­ary ac­tion.

“If we can do something to dis­cour­age As­sad and oth­ers like him from us­ing chem­ic­al weapons without en­ga­ging in a war and without mak­ing a long-term mil­it­ary com­mit­ment of the United States, I’m open to that de­bate,” Durbin said in a state­ment.

Seek­ing to shore up sup­port among sen­at­ors, Obama in­vited Re­pub­lic­an hawks John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina to the White House on Monday, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted. Both Mc­Cain and Gra­ham sup­port a ro­bust strike aimed at top­pling As­sad’s re­gime.

House Speak­er John Boehner, mean­while, has said his cham­ber will con­sider the pres­id­ent’s au­thor­iz­a­tion re­quest when it re­turns the week of Sept. 9. In a sign of just how much op­pos­i­tion Obama will face from his polit­ic­al op­pon­ents in the House, Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Buck McK­eon, R-Cal­if., jabbed the White House over mil­it­ary cuts due to se­quest­ra­tion.

In ad­di­tion to the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ing on Tues­day, a Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee hear­ing is ex­pec­ted this week and ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials are brief­ing mem­bers in both clas­si­fied and un­clas­si­fied set­tings, ac­cord­ing to the As­so­ci­ated Press. The White House gave a two-hour closed brief­ing to law­makers on Sunday, AP re­por­ted.

On Monday, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials—in­clud­ing Kerry, Hagel, De­mp­sey, Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice and Dir­ect­or of Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per—briefed the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus in an un­clas­si­fied tele­con­fer­ence call that las­ted 70 minutes, ac­cord­ing to a House Demo­crat­ic aide.

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