Senate Committee Votes To Authorize Strikes On Syria

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee spent Wednesday scrambling to find language authorizing military strikes on Syria that was acceptable to both those wanting a stronger response and those hoping to limit U.S. involvement.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted today to authorize military strikes against Syria. The vote was 10-to-7, with one senator voting present. The no's came from both parties. The resolution would authorize military action for up to 90 days and it forbids American boots on the ground for combat operations. The resolution will come up for a full vote in the Senate next week.

NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang joins me now from Capitol Hill. And, Ailsa, this current resolution has mutated somewhat from the one offered by President Obama. What changed?

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, that's right. The White House version was pretty broad. It authorizes the president to use force in Syria to prevent or deter use of chemical weapons, and to protect the U.S. and its allies. And what the current Senate resolution adds are express limits on that use of force. It imposes a time limit of 60 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension if Congress objects.

It also prohibits the use of Armed Forces on the ground for the purpose of combat operations, which seemed to satisfy a majority of the senators in this committee that absolutely no troops would be on the ground in Syria, though it raise the question of what kinds of non-combat operations might provide loopholes.

This is the challenge that was facing lawmakers. They had to draft something both narrow and forceful. The ranking member on the committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, said it's been a tricky balance. He says he knows that Americans don't want to be drawn into a long civil war.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: On one hand, we got to have an authorization that keeps that from occurring. On the other side, we got to have an authorization that allows us to deal with any kind of retaliatory efforts that may take place or the future use of chemical weapons again.

BLOCK: And also, Senator Corker was yes-vote. Why don't you tell us about some of the committee members who voted no?

CHANG: Well, one was Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He said he wasn't convinced the strategy would work. Here were his comments after the vote.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: The only thing that will prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in the future is for the Syrian people to remove him from power. The strike the administration wants us to approve, I do not believe furthers that goal. And in fact, I believe that U.S. military action of the type contemplated here may prove to be counterproductive.

CHANG: Those sentiments were echoed by Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been kind of sounding off for a few days now. Paul was an expected no vote. Here's what he said before today's session.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I see a horrible tragedy but I don't see that our involvement will lessen the tragedy. I think it may well make the tragedy worse. I think more civilian deaths could occur. I think an attack on Israel could occur. I think an attack on Turkey could occur.

BLOCK: Now, Ailsa, there were some question earlier today about whether Republican John McCain of Arizona was on board. He's been one of the strongest proponents of military action. What happened there?

CHANG: Well, McCain said he was personally assured by President Obama of three things about U.S. policy: that U.S. would try to degrade the regime's military capabilities, increase U.S. support of the opposition forces, and change the battlefield momentum. And basically what McCain wanted were two amendments that spelled out that policy.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The momentum is on the side of Bashar Assad. And I think it is a reality that if we expect him to leave power, it would be because that situation is reversed and he believes that he cannot prevail.

CHANG: Those amendments were approved primarily because they didn't change the scope of the authorization. At least that's what a majority of the senators felt, so McCain was another yes-vote.

BLOCK: So the committee approves the resolution, now it goes before the full Senate. What are the chances there?

CHANG: Well, that's the question we're all asking. First, there needs to be enough support in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. And the two top-ranking Republicans in the chamber have yet to voice any support for the authorization. John Cornyn of Texas, who's the number two Republican, said that if the strike is so targeted and so limited, it may have the opposite effect that the president intends. It could be viewed as so insignificant that it actually emboldens other international bullies.

So it looks like the Democrats will be doing the heavy lifting in gathering votes in the Senate. And as we know, whatever the Senate passes has to go through the House, where a much more uphill battle is expected.

BLOCK: OK. NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Ailsa, thanks.

CHANG: You're welcome.

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