Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talks to reporters after leaving a closed-door meeting about Syria at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 4. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly passed a bipartisan bill that would authorize American military strikes against Syria Wednesday afternoon, 10-7, with one senator voting “present.”
In about 90 minutes of debate, lawmakers were primarily concerned with placing limitations on how the White House could execute the strikes and how long the military action could last. The president would have a 60 day window to act, with a 30-day extension that would have to be approved by Congress, in order to launch strikes against the Assad regime.
The tight bipartisan vote, however, raises concerns over the bill’s ability to pass the full Senate.
Two Democrats, Sens. Chris Murphy and Tom Udall sided with Republicans Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, John Barasso, Jim Risch, and Rand Paul in voting against the resolution.
One of the early debates pitted Paul, of Kentucky, against virtually the entire committee when he put forth an amendment that would re-affirm the central role that Congress plays in taking the nation to war under the War Powers Act.
Paul argued that “the Constitution doesn’t really differentiate between big wars and small wars,” while insisting that no matter how limited the strikes may be, “this will indeed be a war ... we should make no pretense that we are not getting involved in a war.”
Despite his plea to open wider debate over the congressional power to wage war, his amendment fell in a 14-5 vote.
Also rejected was an amendment by Udall, of New Mexico, which would have prohibited the use of manned aircraft over Syria and ban naval strikes launched from within Syrian waters. Udall’s idea found no backers, and received a rebuke from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who argued that the proposal introduces a level of “micromanagement that, frankly, is unnecessary.”
Congress cannot tie the president’s hands to such a degree, and “if we start down this road, we’re going to be running the campaign from here, and as smart as we are, we’re not that smart,” he quipped.
While he led the pushback against Paul, McCain was able to have his amendment pass by voice vote. The amendment — co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. — removed a section included in the Sept. 3 Joint Resolution that was up for debate that focused on achieving a political settlement as soon as possible, replacing it with the statement asserting that “absent decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria, sufficient incentives do not yet exist for the achievement of such goals.”
As a result, a US strategy should aim 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 the Syrian opposition forces, including the Syrian Free Army.”
The White House has been arguing that its goal will not be “regime change” in Syria, something which the McCain/Coons amendment honors, while also providing room for a potential escalation of force — or continued strikes — if these objectives are not being met.
Another amendment from a Washington veteran that found favor with the committee came from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who objected to the vague language in the original document that would authorize military strikes to “respond to the use, and deter and degrade the potential future use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian government.”
He worried that this could lead to action outside of Syria, if the government shipped arms to groups outside of the country. Instead he successfully had language include that specifies that strikes could only target sites and groups “within Syria.”
After the vote, Rubio, of Florida — considered a 2016 Republican presidential contender — explained his “no” vote: “I remain unconvinced that the use of force here will work.” Instead, he put forth a plan that would increase humanitarian aid to Syrians both within the country and in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, ban oil shipments to Syria, and set up a transition fund to help the country along once Assad is eventually removed form power.
Udall, who also voted no, added that “we should not take it lightly that the American people are not with us” in a desire to strike Syria as punishment for using chemical weapons against its own civilians.
On Sept. 2, the French government released the combined assessments of its intelligence agencies on Syria, which detailed two previous chemical attacks on civilian targets while also offering a full accounting of the regime’s ability to launch missile-borne chemical weapons attacks up to 500 km.