Syria Strike Will Have A Harder Time Getting House Approval

On Wednesday, the John Kerry and Chuck Hagel road show moved on to the House Foreign Affairs Committee as the administration tries to build support for an air attack on Syria President Bashar al-Assad's military assets. But there is uneasiness among some House members who wonder how and why Speaker John Boehner was so quickly won over.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-to-7 this afternoon to authorize a limited use of force against Syria. That still needs to go before the full Senate. At the same time, on the House side, top administration officials appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee and repeated their case for military action. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, they're facing a mix of skepticism and support.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Congress is divided over whether to authorize the use of force in Syria. Actually, that's an understatement. Representatives who normally vote in lockstep with each other find themselves on opposite ends of the debate, and many others remain undecided. And as the hearing started, that included House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman California Republican Ed Royce.

REPRESENTATIVE EDWARD ROYCE: It is a cliche, but true: There are no easy answers. Syria and much of the Middle East are a mess.

KEITH: Three men who know the consequences of war as well as anyone sat before the committee: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. He argued the word of the United States must mean something, and that requires a military response to Syria's use of chemical weapons against civilians.

SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: As we all know, there are always risks in taking action, but there are also risks with inaction.

KEITH: There were questions, from Democrats and Republicans alike, about why it seems like the United States is going it alone, why there isn't more visible international support. Kerry insisted there are a number of allies on board. And there were questions about just who would be helped by American military action. Here's Texas Republican Ted Poe.

REPRESENTATIVE TED POE: There is no pure side in this civil war. You got Hezbollah, a bunch of bad guys, on one side, and you have other terrorist groups on the other side.

KEITH: South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan said he had spoken to hundreds of constituents about this.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFFREY DUNCAN: Not a one member in my district in South Carolina or the emails of people that have contacted my office say go to Syria and fight this regime. To the letter, they say, no, do not go into Syria. Don't get involved in their civil war.

KEITH: This prompted a strong response from Kerry, who said the president's goal is to send a message about the use of chemical weapons, to force a negotiated end to the conflict in Syria, but not to put boots on the ground.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: This is not about getting into Syria's civil war. This is about enforcing the principle that people shouldn't be allowed to gas their citizens with impunity. And if we don't vote to do this, Assad will interpret from you that he's free to go and do this any day he wants to.

KEITH: But there were also representatives on the panel who spoke in favor of military action, including a couple of war veterans. Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger, a pilot in the Air Force and the National Guard, held up a large photo of Syrian children, and then described what chemical weapons do to the human body.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM KINZINGER: Can we ban all artillery shells? We can't. Can we ban all war? We can't. But if we can stand up and say that chemical weapons have no place in this world and we can do something about it, God help us if we don't.

KEITH: Congress is in this position because President Obama decided that rather than ask for permission after the fact, he'd ask for permission first. It's a choice he defended earlier today at a press conference in Sweden, saying past practice has been for presidents to push the limits of their constitutional authority by taking military action before seeking congressional approval.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress will sit on the sidelines, snipe. If it works, the sniping will be a little less. If it doesn't, a little more, but either way, the American people and their representatives are not fully invested.

KEITH: Members of Congress are fully invested in the debate now. That's for sure. What isn't sure is whether the president will get the affirmation he's after. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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