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.
Two key House Democrats began circulating a letter soliciting support in their chamber for that kind of limited approach.
They proposed limiting the president’s strikes only to deter “the repeated use of chemical weapons” rather than preventing proliferation or transfer, saying that while the broader goal is worthy, now is not the time to authorize anything that broad.
There is also fear that the continued debate in Washington over how to punish Mr. Assad — weeks after his use of sarin gas — will drag on so long, and the resolution be diluted so much, that the eventual U.S. response won’t achieve the objectives. Analysts say the specifics matter and argue that weak intervention by American forces could embolden Mr. Assad.
“It matters very much what is done. If something is done only to show that something was done, [Mr. Assad] gets the message. He will simply hunker down and wait for the dark clouds to pass and then he’ll resume what he’s doing, which is killing people,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University and a native of Syria.
Mr. Jouejati predicted that Congress will seek to narrow the scope of the resolution but cautioned against going too far.
“The more they tighten it up, the more they are going to tie his hands. So they really must find language with which they are comfortable, but that does not tie his hands. These documents are not purely American. They are shared by the entire world. They send a message,” he said.
That tension was clear within the administration Tuesday.
Although Mr. Kerry said the administration is willing to accept strict limits in order to get a resolution passed, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he would prefer a broader resolution that would give him more options.
Most lawmakers seemed to be pushing for strict limits, but others wanted broader language than even Mr. Obama proposed.
“If it’s the wrong kind of resolution, it can do just as much damage, in my view,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who has criticized the administration for waiting so long and for not doing more to aid the Syrian rebels.
Mr. Obama’s draft resolution asked for authority to use the military “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria.” It said the president should take action to deter their use or transfer.
Overhanging the entire discussion were the 2001 and 2002 resolutions that President George W. Bush won authorizing the use of force against al Qaeda and against Iraq, respectively.
The 2001 resolution in particular became the basis for drone strikes against a series of countries outside of Afghanistan, and also served as justification for the prison at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and for indefinite detention.
Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, tried to pin down exactly what the president needed. He asked whether the administration wanted authority to hit targets outside Syria, to go after governments other than Syria, or to target non-state actors.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration wasn’t seeking authority to do any of those things.
Louis Fisher, scholar in residence at the Constitution Project, said Congress does have the authority to restrict a president in how he conducts military operations.
He pointed to a case around the turn of the 19th century in which Congress specifically granted the Adams administration the power to attack ships on their way to French ports, but not on their way from France.
After the Navy captured a neutral Danish ship on the way from a French port, the Supreme Court ruled that a violation of the rules laid out by Congress.
Mr. Fisher, who used to be the Congressional Research Service’s specialist on presidential powers, said Congress should learn from the experience in Libya two years ago, when Mr. Obama promised a short operation but establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone ended up lasting seven weeks.