Senators Rand Paul And John McCain Differ On Syria Strikes

Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona approach the question of military strikes on Syria from opposite wings of the Republican Party. Paul from the isolationist wing and McCain from the traditional, more hawkish wing. Their disagreement played out in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, and serves as a preview for the far more consequential version of this debate among House Republicans.

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When President Obama said he would ask Congress before striking Syria, some analysts called it a huge risk. The president was handing this issue to lawmakers who rarely agree on anything and have an approval rating of 15 percent.

MONTAGNE: Republicans have staged vote after vote against Obamacare, but Syria has prompted some genuine debate within the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: Republicans - including House Speaker John Boehner - say they can support U.S. action responding to the use of chemical weapons. Others passionately oppose the move. The divide is stark between two Republican senators at a hearing on Syria yesterday.

Here's NPR's Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: There on the dais sat John McCain of Arizona, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war who's been consistently pushing for more U.S. involvement in Syria. And just a couple seats away sat one of his newest colleagues: Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian favorite who isn't convinced any military intervention in Syria is going to work. To them, Secretary of State John Kerry had this plea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE HEARING)

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

CHANG: McCain could not agree more, and made a point on Tuesday to highlight U.S. action would result in a weaker Syrian government.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE HEARING)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: The president said today that the purpose of the military action in Syria is not just to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons, but to degrade his military capabilities as part of a broader strategy to change the momentum on the ground, and as the president said, quote, "allow Syria ultimately to free itself." Do you agree with that military assessment, John?

KERRY: I said up front, I've said several times here: There will automatically be, as a result of degrading his ability for chemical weapons, there will be downstream impact, which will have an impact on his military capacity.

CHANG: It was a point Kerry hit throughout yesterday's hearing, that a limited strike would effectively damage the regime in Syria. And it's a point that Rand Paul was not buying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE HEARING)

SEN. RAND PAUL: I think it's conjecture, at best.

CHANG: Paul is one lawmaker in this Syria debate debunking the long-held assumption that the Republican Party is the party with the more aggressive foreign policy. Many conservative and libertarian Republicans are pointing to their war-weary constituents.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE HEARING)

PAUL: I haven't had one person come up to me and say they're for this war, not one person. We get calls by the thousands. Nobody's calling in favor of this war.

CHANG: He says there's no way of knowing if the Middle East will be more or less stable with U.S. intervention, no way of knowing if Israel would be more or less likely to suffer an attack, or if Russia will get more or less involved. Kerry rubbed his eyes several times as Paul went on. The secretary tugged at his shirt collar, as if to let in air. Then he shot a question directly at Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE HEARING)

KERRY: If the United States of America doesn't do this, senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?

PAUL: I don't think it's known. I don't think it's known...

KERRY: Is it more or less likely that he does it again?

PAUL: ...you have the attack. I think it's unknown whether it's more or less likely whether you have the attack.

KERRY: Senator, it's not unknown. If the United States of America doesn't hold him accountable on this with our allies and friends, it's a guarantee Assad will do it again.

CHANG: Kerry, the former senator and former chair of the Foreign Relations Committee returns to the Capitol today to speak with the House version of that panel. There, he'll likely face the same skepticism Paul expressed. In fact, it's in the Republican-controlled House where the tension between the traditional, pro-intervention wing of the Republican Party and its newer isolationist faction poses a bigger threat to the president's plan. Obama did win a key endorsement Tuesday when House Speaker John Boehner said he supported strikes on Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: This is something that the United States, as a country, needs to do. I'm going to support the president's call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this call for action.

CHANG: Boehner's Majority Leader Eric Cantor voiced his support soon after that. But it's unclear whether Boehner and Cantor will make any difference. Republicans have been bucking House leadership all year. And soon after Boehner's statement, his spokesman pointed out the speaker expected President Obama - not party leaders - to line up the votes he needed.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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