WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced his opposition Tuesday to U.S. missile strikes on Syria, deepening the divide in the Republican Party as House Speaker John A. Boehner reaffirmed his support for military action, saying it is important to give the president a “unified front.”
The split between the two top GOP leaders in Congress comes as McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2014, aligned himself with the tea party wing of the GOP, which has gained influence at the expense of the Republicans' traditional defense hawks.
In breaking his long silence on the issue, McConnell said he did not believe limited strikes would end the threat of chemical weapons allegedly used by President Bashar Assad’s regime or remove the Syrian leader from power.
“It’s not exactly a state secret that I’m no fan of this president’s foreign policy,” McConnell said in a floor speech in reference to President Obama. “And this proposal just does not stand up.”
The two Republican leaders, however, both cast doubt on the viability of the emerging Russian-Syrian offer to turn Damascus' chemical weapons stockpile over to the control of the United Nations.
Boehner said he was skeptical because of the “actors that are involved.” McConnell also raised concerns, but the Senate leader said it is “worth exploring.”
Meanwhile, Boehner, who was an early backer of Obama’s proposed missile strikes on Syria as punishment for the Assad regime’s alleged use of poison gas in Damascus suburbs, stood by the president’s plan, even as he urged Obama to make a clearer case to the American people in his national address Tuesday night.
“I believe it’s important to try to help the president provide a unified front,” Boehner said during a morning news conference, even as he made a nod to his own problems rounding up votes. “It’s a very difficult issue for Congress.”
That McConnell and Boehner, two veteran Republican leaders, diverged on a significant national security issue reflects the shift in the GOP as the newer libertarian-leaning isolationists tap public opinion to sway the traditional defense hawks.
In his campaign for reelection, McConnell has been relying heavily on the popularity in Kentucky of Sen. Rand Paul, the state’s newer senator, who is among the foremost national leaders of the GOP’s conservative wing.
McConnell insisted that he was not becoming an isolationist on foreign policy issues, and said he would have backed the use of force had U.S. national security interests been threatened.
“I believe we have a duty, as a superpower without imperialistic aims, to help maintain an international order and balance of power that we and other allies have worked very hard on over the years,” McConnell said. “I have never been an isolationist. And a vote against this resolution shouldn’t be confused by anyone as a turn in that direction.”