Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday that members of Congress who refused to authorize retaliatory strikes against Syria would be responsible when the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad gasses its citizens or when North Korea or Iran attempts to use nuclear weapons.
Opening the administration’s official pitch to Congress for action, Mr. Kerry testified at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that he didn’t want to rule out the need for the U.S. to deploy troops to the ground in Syria — then backtracked and said if it means winning a vote, they have “no problem” with Congress writing a resolution prohibiting troops.
Late Tuesday, the top members of the committee said they had agreed on the text of a resolution that would prohibit “combat” troops from being deployed to Syria and would give the president just 90 days to conduct his strikes.
That resolution will be put to a committee vote Wednesday. The administration hopes it begins to build momentum for eventual approval by both chambers of Congress.
The White House picked up an important ally in House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who emerged from a meeting with President Obama to say he will vote to authorize an attack on Syria.
Whether Mr. Boehner brings any support with him, though, is questionable. Every day, more rank-and-file House members are adding their names to the list of those opposed to the authority Mr. Obama is seeking, and some lawmakers said they see little sign that the administration is winning over undecideds.
Instead, it will be up to lawmakers to try to craft a limited resolution that they can support — one that likely will dictate far more limits than the president requested.
The version released by senators late Tuesday restricts the scope of action in Syria and presses the administration to look into arming moderate rebels fighting to overthrow Mr. Assad.
“Our negotiations have led to a much narrower authorization that provides for the appropriate use of force while limiting the scope and duration of military action, prohibiting boots on the ground, and requiring the Obama administration to submit their broader plan for Syria,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the key Republican in the negotiations, hours after Mr. Kerry and the top two Defense Department officials — Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — testified to the Foreign Relations Committee.
In his testimony, Mr. Kerry said there no longer can be any doubt that troops loyal to Mr. Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in rebel-held territory on Aug. 21 and that the only question now is whether the U.S. will enforce Mr. Obama’s and the world’s “red line.”
In the most pointed remarks of the day, Mr. Kerry compared those who would vote against action to the case of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Germany that was turned away from Cuba, the U.S. and Canada in 1939 — and had to return to Europe, where many of its passengers eventually died in Nazi camps.
“Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again?” Mr. Kerry told his former colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s a guarantee, if the United States doesn’t act together with other countries, we know what Assad will do. That’s a guarantee. I can’t tell you what’s guaranteed that some country will do if we do act, but I know what will happen if we don’t.”
Those claims were met with skepticism among some lawmakers, who said it was just as likely that Mr. Assad backs away from further use of chemical weapons and who said they feared that limited U.S. strikes, rather than settling the situation, would lead to a regional escalation.
“I am reluctant,” said Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican. “If there was one American, if this was an attack against any American, against any American interest, this would be a no-brainer for me. But I’m reluctant at this point. And part of it stems from where this is going to go, as to the limit that we’re going to put on it.”
Still, a majority of the 18-member committee appeared to be leaning in favor of action, heeding the call of Senate leaders who appeared to be pushing for lawmakers to pass a resolution that would give a stamp of approval for Mr. Obama to act.
Meanwhile, Mr. Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, emerged from a meeting with Mr. Obama at the White House to say they will vote to authorize force. But a spokesman for Mr. Boehner said later that it will be up to Mr. Obama to find the votes and that it’s an “uphill” climb for the administration.
The latest polling says the American public is opposed. An ABC/Washington Post poll found 59 percent of respondents rejecting retaliatory strikes.
Mr. Kerry and his fellow panel members are slated to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, while the Senate committee will hold a closed-door session to hear classified details about U.S. plans and about the intelligence supporting claims that chemical weapons were used.
The Senate committee hearing Tuesday was interrupted several times by vocal female protesters calling for Congress to reject any military action. Mr. Kerry, who made a name in national politics by protesting the Vietnam War, in which he served, said he sympathized with the demonstrating women and that it represented the importance for Congress to have a debate.
Although some analysts still question whether the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, most members of Congress seemed ready to accept the administration’s case that such weapons were used Aug. 21 and that forces loyal to Mr. Assad were responsible for the attack.
“In my view, there is a preponderance of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Kerry punctuated that point, saying the Obama administration has learned the lessons of faulty intelligence from the experience in Iraq and has repeatedly scrubbed its intelligence to make sure it’s correct.