- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2013

Congress’ role in approving military strikes kicks off Tuesday when Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will tell senators that the U.S. must strike at the Syrian regime to make clear that chemical weapons use will not be tolerated.

Sen. Robert C. Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel’s ranking Republican, announced the hearings after senators decided to use the final week of their summer recess to examine the case for action.

“The American people deserve to hear more from the administration about why military action in Syria is necessary, what it will achieve and how it will be sufficiently limited to keep the U.S. from being drawn further into the Syrian conflict,” Mr. Corker said in a statement.


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The Tuesday hearing will be followed by a closed-door meeting Wednesday that the committee has labeled “top secret.” The witnesses for that hearing have not been announced.

House members also will hold hearings, with Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said Monday that he would call Mr. Kerry before his committee Wednesday.

“The president’s proposed military response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime demands thorough and deliberate congressional consideration,” Mr. Royce said in a statement.


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The House and Senate are expected to vote on resolutions authorizing force next week after all lawmakers return from the recess.

Emerging from a private briefing with President Obama at the White House on Monday afternoon, Sen. John McCain of Arizona warned that it would be “catastrophic” if Congress rejected the resolution.

Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, two of the leading Republican voices in the Senate on defense matters, met with Mr. Obama as part of a series of briefings with top lawmakers of both parties ahead of the votes.

“A vote against that resolution,” Mr. McCain said, “would undermine the credibility of the United States and of the president.”

Some lawmakers pushed to return to Capitol Hill early to begin debating and hold a vote immediately, but neither their leaders nor Mr. Obama believed the matter was that urgent. Mr. Obama said this weekend that strikes will be effective whether they are conducted now or in a month.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel are former senators, and indeed Mr. Kerry was once chairman and Mr. Hagel a senior member of the very committee to which they will testify.

Given that, the hearing promises to be cordial, though lawmakers have said they want to press for answers to key questions about the administration’s evidence that chemical weapons were used and about Mr. Obama’s broader strategy.

Mr. Obama is likely to have a relatively easier time making his case to the Senate. A number of senators were pushing for military action even before the Aug. 21 attacks near Damascus, where the Obama administration says chemical weapons were used.

Mr. McCain said he was “encouraged” by Monday’s briefing but said he is still not committed to voting for the resolution until next week’s debate.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said Mr. Obama was considering a plan to “degrade” the military capacity of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad while “upgrading” the capacity of democratic, pro-U.S. elements in rebel forces that have been battling Mr. Assad for two years.

The administration outlined “a pretty solid plan” to increase support for the Syrian opposition and get regional U.S. allies such as Jordan and Turkey more openly involved in the struggle against Mr. Assad, Mr. Graham said, with no plan now to introduce U.S. troops on the ground in the Syrian civil war.

But he also acknowledged that the resolution was a “tough sell” for voters back home in South Carolina and that many lawmakers on Capitol Hill were waiting for a better sense of the administration’s larger strategy before committing to the resolution.

In the House, there is a deeper well of resistance to action, with many lawmakers saying they are skeptical that the U.S. can do the sort of limited strike Mr. Obama says he is contemplating, and others wonder about the “red line” Mr. Obama drew on chemical weapons in the first place.

“Tens of thousands have been killed by the Assad regime in this brutal conflict — relatively few by chemical weapons. A military response that places an arbitrary focus on such weapons will do little to protect civilians and sends a deeply misguided signal that totalitarian regimes should only use conventional weapons to carry out mass murder,” Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a statement Monday.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the oversight committee, said Mr. Obama will need to explain potential ramifications of any attack, too.

“If our objective is not regime change, we must understand how we will measure success, particularly if civilian deaths using conventional weapons continue or even increase after any U.S. strike,” he said.

Several Democrats participated in a conference call with several administration officials and said they were skeptical about using U.S. force and, according to The Associated Press, some said the resolution had to be narrowed before they could support it.

“The White House has put forward a proposed bill authorizing the use of force that, as drafted, is far too broad and open-ended, and could be used to justify everything from a limited cruise missile strike to a no-fly zone and the introduction of American ground troops,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

David R. Sands contributed to this report.