Key senators struck a deal Tuesday night on a resolution granting President Obama the authority to conduct military strikes in Syria as long as they happen within 90 days and are limited to enforcing the administration’s “red line” prohibiting chemical weapons use.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, and ranking Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee wrote bipartisan language that they said imposed extra limits on the president and didn’t give him an open-ended grant of powers, but would afford him the leeway to conduct airstrikes to degrade Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.
The agreement requires the president to certify that he has exhausted all diplomatic channels and gives Mr. Obama 60 days to act, with one 30-day extension. It also orders him to come up with a plan to try to push Syria’s warring parties into a final negotiated settlement.
One part of the agreement even presses the administration to devise a strategy for arming moderate rebels to strengthen them in their battle against Mr. Assad. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have accused the Obama administration of being too reticent to take that step.
Mr. Menendez scheduled a committee vote for Wednesday, marking the first step in what is likely to be a tough path to getting a final authorization through both chambers of Congress and back to Mr. Obama.
One key to the agreement was to insist on strict checks to make sure Mr. Obama doesn’t have the authority to put U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, which senators felt was a gateway to getting more involved than what Americans are ready for.
“Together we have pursued a course of action that gives the president the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime’s criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused, limited in time, and assures that the armed forces of the United States will not be deployed for combat operations in Syria,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry landed in hot water hours earlier when he said he didn’t think a resolution should rule out putting American boots on the ground in Syria.
After realizing he had erred, the former senator feverishly worked to backtrack.
“Be crystal clear — there’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for,” Mr. Kerry said as he tried to build backing for strikes to uphold Mr. Obama’s “red line” against use of chemical weapons.
The president’s chances for victory in Congress rest on the specific wording of the resolution.
Indeed, even if there ends up being majority support for taking some action, that coalition still could splinter on the details, leaving the president with a devastating defeat.
The office of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Mr. Obama faces an “uphill battle” in winning the votes needed to get a resolution through Congress, though others predicted better chances for success.
To get a resolution through the Senate and House, analysts said, Mr. Obama likely will have to accept revamped language — possibly driven by the leadership of both parties — that would likely include specific timetables and other limits on what the U.S. military can do.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried to pin down the administration on a strategy, and also to pin down the limits, how long can this occur? The president says it’s short, but what does ‘short’ mean? And what does ‘limited’ mean?” Lara Brown, program director at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, said Tuesday afternoon. “I would imagine there’s going to be more specificity” in Congress’ updated resolution.