Senate Panel’s Syria Vote Cuts Across Party Lines

By Patrick Goodenough | September 4, 2013 | 8:52 PM EDT

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker, left, and chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, second from right, with Syria hearing witnesses Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. (Photo: SFRC)

( – Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s vote authorizing a limited military operation against the Assad regime found Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the issue, a reflection of deep divisions over intervention in the Middle East that have crossed party affiliation.

Seven Democrats and three Republicans voted for the resolution, while five Republicans and two Democrats voted against. Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Markey voted “present.”

Among the aye votes were the committee’s chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and its ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

They were joined by Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Democratic Sens. Benjamin Cardin (Md.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Christopher Coons (Del.), Tim Kaine (Va.), and Barbara Boxer (Calif.), a traditionally anti-war left-winger.

The no votes came from Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Christopher Murphy (Conn.), both liberals; and from Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John Barrasso (Wyo.) and James Risch (Idaho).

The resolution, expected to go before the full Senate next week, supports the use of military action in a “limited and specified manner against legitimate military targets.”

The specified aims are to respond to the regime’s use of chemical weapons; to deter the further use of such weapons; to degrade its ability to use such weapons; and to “prevent the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors within Syria of any weapons of mass destruction.”

The authority granted excludes the use of U.S. armed forces “on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.”

The authorization is valid for a period of 60 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension should President Obama request it – unless Congress in the meantime has passed legislation disapproving any extension.

The text says the goals of the U.S. strategy towards Syria includes “achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.”

McCain, a leading critic of the administration for what he views as a reluctance to help hasten the end of President Bashar Assad’s regime, introduced an amendment with Coons adding clauses stating:

“It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.

“A comprehensive U.S. strategy in Syria should aim, as part of a coordinated international effort, to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime to use weapons of mass destruction while upgrading the lethal and non-lethal military capabilities of vetted elements of Syrian opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army.”

McCain afterwards welcomed inclusion of the language, which he said was “vital to ensuring that any U.S. military operations in Syria are part of a broader strategy to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria.”

“That strategy must degrade the military capabilities of the Assad regime while upgrading the military capabilities of moderate Syrian opposition forces. These amendments would put the Congress on the record that this is the policy of the United States, as President Obama has assured me it is.”

In a statement later explaining his “present” vote, Markey pointed to the McCain-Coons amendment, saying the resolution in current form “goes beyond the president’s objective of responding to the use of chemical weapons to call for a broader U.S. political and military strategy in Syria that includes expanded support for various opposition groups, efforts to limit support for the Syrian regime from the government of Iran and activities to isolate terrorist groups in Syria.”

“Although some of these may be desirable objectives, as written they could result in deeper U.S. military involvement in a country inflamed by sectarian violence.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Rubio and Paul – same vote, different emphases

Rubio and Paul are both considered likely GOP presidential aspirants in 2016. Although both voted against the resolution, they highlighted different reasons in doing so.

Explaining his no vote, Rubio said he has long argued for “engagement in empowering the Syrian people” but has never supported the use of U.S. military force in the conflict and still does not.

“This idea that a military response is the only way to respond to what is happening in Syria is just not true. Instead our response should have always have been, and should still be, a multifaceted plan to help the Syrian people can get rid of Assad and replace him with a secular and moderate government they deserve,” he said.

Rubio distanced himself from an isolationist tendency, saying while it was true the U.S. cannot solve every crisis in the world “if we follow the advice of those who seek to disengage us from global issues, in the long run we will pay a terrible price.”

“When America doesn’t lead, chaos follows. And eventually, that chaos forces us to deal with these problems in the most expensive and the most dangerous ways imaginable. Just because we ignore global problems doesn’t mean they will ignore us.”

“Instead, they become bigger and harder to solve,” Rubio said, citing the situation today in Syria and criticizing Obama, who he said – “with the support of some voices in my own party” – had chosen to let others lead.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.  (AP File Photo)

Paul, who clashed with Secretary of State John Kerry during a hearing Tuesday over constitutional limits to the executive branch initiating military action, introduced an amendment to the resolution stating that “It is the sense of the Senate that the president does not have the power under the constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” It was voted down 14-4.

Paul said he intends to push the constitutional issue in the full Senate next week.

“It should be made explicit that the constitution invested the power to go to war in Congress,” he said. “Since the administration refuses to say it will abide by this vote, win or lose, Congress should send a clear message.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow