Support Builds in Congress for U.S. Strike Against Syria

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 03 SEP 13) … Carol E. Lee, Janet Hook and Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s drive to build support for an attack against Syria gained significant momentum Tuesday as a range of congressional leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, urged wary rank-and-file lawmakers to back a resolution authorizing the use of military force.

Mr. Boehner (R., Ohio) said striking Syria in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians was necessary to reassure U.S. allies of American resolve and put adversaries such as Iran on notice.

“This is something that the United States as a country needs to do,” Mr. Boehner said after a White House meeting with Mr. Obama and senior members of the House and Senate. “I’m going to support the president’s call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action.”

The No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, echoed Mr. Boehner in supporting the president’s request for a resolution of force from Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), who also was at the White House meeting and will be crucial to winning needed Democratic votes, said she supported “targeted, tailored” action “of short duration.”

The support from Mr. Boehner and most of the other leaders had been expected. Still, their forceful language helped reset a debate that had been dominated by skeptics.

Senate leaders said they were confident their chamber would pass a resolution – although leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday agreed on a significantly narrower version of the bill, limited in duration and scope, that will be voted on by the panel Wednesday. Still, even one of the president’s leading critics, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), predicted Tuesday that the measure would pass the full Senate.

But prospects are cloudier in the House. A sizable faction of House Republicans, some aligned with the tea party, are skeptical of military intervention. In the House Democratic caucus, many liberals are reluctant to use military force even when proposed by a president of their own party.

The endorsements of Messrs. Boehner and Cantor are important for Mr. Obama’s effort, but other GOP leaders were noncommittal.

The No. 3 Republican leader in the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, remained a skeptic after the White House meeting. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who also attended the session, hasn’t endorsed a resolution authorizing Mr. Obama to use force.

“While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done,” Mr. McConnell said in a statement Tuesday.

The administration faces a challenge in gaining support from two factions of lawmakers: one that says strikes would be meaningful only if they erode the Assad regime’s overall military capabilities, and another that wants to place limits on the duration and scope of strikes.

Obama administration officials appeared to try to do both Tuesday in the Senate hearing, outlining a military campaign that would be contained and avoid putting troops on the ground in Syria, while suggesting that the attacks would weaken the Assad regime.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators he was developing plans focused both on chemical weapons and the means of deploying them. “The task I’ve been given is to develop military options to deter – that is to say, change the regime’s calculus about the use of chemical weapons and degrade his ability to do so,” he said.

Some lawmakers have come away from conversations in the White House this week convinced that Mr. Obama is contemplating a more extensive military operation than many had expected. Focusing on potential methods for deploying chemical weapons opens a path to attacks on a broad range of targets, including missiles and aircraft, which could be used in theory in a chemical weapons program.

Mr. Obama privately told key lawmakers that the objective of the proposed strike would be “to change the momentum on the ground,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading Republican advocate for intervention. In an interview, Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama’s statement gave him confidence that the administration would expand the scope of the strike to a wider range of targets to degrade Mr. Assad’s military capabilities.

Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday after the meeting with Mr. Obama that the president is “talking about a strike that sends primarily the message that weapons of mass destruction – gassing your own people – is unacceptable, but also a message that tells Assad that we’re not just going to let him stay where he is and continue to wreak havoc and rain terror on his people.”

Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned against a U.S. military intervention. “We should avoid further militarization of the conflict and revitalize the search for a diplomatic settlement,” Mr. Ban told reporters. He said U.S. force in Syria would be “lawful” only if it were in self-defense or with U.N. Security Council approval.

Mr. Kerry assured senators repeatedly that the administration had no intent of putting “boots on the ground” in Syria. At the same time, he urged care in crafting the congressional authorization of force, noting that situations could arise in which commandoes might need to be inserted.

Mr. Kerry said that if, for example, the Al Nusra front, a rebel group aligned with al Qaeda, was on the verge of acquiring chemical weapons, the U.S. might want to use its elite special-operations forces in a preventive move.

“I don’t want to take an option off the table,” Mr. Kerry said.

That provoked protest from some members of committee. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) said the Obama administration would have to live with some restrictions. Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said the White House position was “inappropriate.”

“The consequence of degrading his chemical capacity inevitably will also have downstream impact on his military capacity,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are scheduled to testify at a House Foreign Affairs Committee public hearing Wednesday.

Both chambers are working to revise the resolution the president sent to Capitol Hill on Saturday to address lawmakers’ concerns and pick up more votes.

Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee late Tuesday announced they had reached agreement on a more narrowly focused version of the resolution that would set a 60-day limit for launching military strikes, with a 30-day extension possible if Mr. Obama determines it is necessary to meet the goals of the resolution.

The resolution, which is expected to come before the committee for a vote Wednesday, also bans the use of ground forces in Syria “for the purpose of combat operations.” Republicans and Democrats had both said the prohibition was necessary for their support.

Under the resolution, Mr. Obama would be required to submit to Congress a strategy for bringing about a negotiated settlement in Syria, including a review of current policy such as assistance to rebel forces.

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