Obama lines up key support in Congress for Syria attack

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, flanked by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the White House call for military action against Syria.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Key lawmakers in both parties endorsed President Obama’s call for a punitive strike on Syria, giving momentum to his drive to win authorization from Congress as it began the most momentous debate on the use of military force since the 2002 run-up to the war in Iraq.

Although members of Congress remain deeply split and polls indicate Americans oppose military action, Obama on Tuesday won the backing of the two top House Republicans, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. He also picked up the support of the No. 2 House Democrat, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was already on board.


Late Tuesday, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on language authorizing U.S. military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, while ruling out the commitment of U.S. ground forces and limiting the window for an attack to 90 days. A committee vote could come as early as Wednesday.

Earlier, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, along with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had sought to dispel the concern of some committee members that, as with Iraq, the U.S. was at risk of acting on flawed or exaggerated intelligence, or that the U.S. could be drawn more deeply into Syria’s civil war.

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter,” Kerry said.

Obama took one of the biggest gambles of his presidency Saturday when he announced he would seek Congress’ blessing for military action in hope of bolstering the limited foreign and domestic support for the mission. Substantial risk remains that rank-and-file lawmakers in the House, who sense the hostility of many Americans to more U.S. military action in the Middle East, could break with their leadership.

But Boehner urged Republican House members, usually antagonistic toward Obama, to support him because “this is something that the United States, as a country, needs to do.” He called Syrian President Bashar Assad’s alleged attack with sarin gas, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people on Aug. 21, a “barbarous act.”

Obama called for Congress to act promptly.

“What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional,” he said in brief comments before meeting with legislators. “It will degrade Assad’s capabilities. At the same time, we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition.”

The language crafted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and the committee’s leading Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, calls for the use of force “in a limited and tailored manner” against military targets in Syria in response to the government’s use of “weapons of mass destruction.”

Two leaders of the Senate’s hawk faction, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), also argued on television news shows in favor of a strike, although they remain critical of how Obama has handled the Syrian civil war.

The No. 3 House lawmakers from both parties, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), remain undecided. So do most lawmakers, who are still weighing the policy merits and the political risks of a vote that may be deeply unpopular whichever way they decide.

Two polls released Tuesday, from the Pew Research Center and Washington Post-ABC News, found that Americans remain opposed to U.S. military action in Syria.

Yet key members and aides said Boehner’s announcement provided at least a temporary momentum swing from Saturday, when many in Congress were predicting that the support Obama sought was not there. Lawmakers lining up with Obama said that if the United States did not seek to deter chemical weapons use, it would embolden Assad and his allies in Iran; hurt America’s standing around the world; and put U.S. allies such as Israel, Jordan and Turkey at risk of such attacks.

The Boehner-Cantor decision “is a game-changer for the House vote, and far more important than McCain and Graham, who lead a small minority seeking greater military involvement,” said a senior Senate aide who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The aide noted that a number of traditional hawks, such as Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), were also lining up with Obama in favor of a limited strike.

Speaking Tuesday before the Senate committee, at the first congressional hearing on the issue, Kerry, Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said inaction was unacceptable.

“The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting,” said Kerry, a former chairman of the committee.

He said he and Hagel, who had been in the Senate for the Iraq vote a decade ago, “are especially sensitive … to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence. And that is why our intelligence community has scrubbed and rescrubbed the evidence.”

Kerry said Assad had been responsible for a series of chemical weapons attacks numbering “in the teens,” which suggests the Syrian military has employed them far more than has been publicly known. Administration officials were unable to provide any immediate elaboration.

Obama’s position also drew an expression of public support from former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, who had remained silent on the issue.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s most influential pro-Israel organization, also declared itself in favor of a punitive attack. “Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass,” the group said in a statement.

Congressional attention is now focused on negotiating language for the resolution, with many members pressing to make it narrow enough to convince skeptical lawmakers it will not open the way for deeper military involvement.

In the House, Reps. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said they were also working on a proposal.

The White House has indicated it will work with Congress on the language, aiming for a vote by the middle of next week. Officials have said they are not seeking to topple Assad or deploy U.S. troops.

Kerry signaled one possible complication on the issue when he told the Senate committee that the administration would oppose language specifically barring U.S. “boots on the ground” because that could limit U.S. options in the event of an emergency, such as a threatened chemical weapons release.

But moments later, facing objections from senators, Kerry backed off, saying the administration had no desire to insert U.S. ground troops and would work with lawmakers to find language making that clear.

Some senators worried aloud that missile strikes on Assad, even if limited, might draw the United States more deeply into the civil war if it widens to entangle U.S. allies.

“What happens if they get into it with Israel?” asked Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho). “What’s our response going to be?”

Kerry sought to assure Risch that a limited mission “doesn’t mean the United States of America is going to war.”

The administration seemed to have the support of some committee liberals with antiwar histories, such as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has said that her vote against the Iraq war was her proudest moment. She said a failure to act “gives Assad license to use these weapons again.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leader of the non-interventionist GOP faction, criticized the administration for being unwilling to say whether it would go ahead with an attack if Congress voted no. “You are making a joke out of us, you are making theater,” said Paul, who threatened to filibuster the resolution.

Kerry said Obama had not decided whether he would launch the attack in the absence of congressional support.

Another public hearing is set for Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and administration officials will continue to brief lawmakers in private.

The president, who will be in Sweden and Russia until Friday, and other top administration officials are expected to make calls to wavering lawmakers to lobby them.

Times staff writers Evan Halper and Rich Simon contributed to this report.