U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testify Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — In a wild morning on Capitol Hill, US policy toward Syria continued down an uneven path — with senior officials embracing Moscow’s anti-war plan while vowing to find the funds to pay for cruise missile strikes.
Secretary of State John Kerry told mostly skeptical House Armed Services Committee (HASC) members that President Barack Obama had informed his French and British counterparts that he examined a Russian plan to work through the United Nations before attacking Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
That means Obama is now willing to see whether Russia’s proposal to move Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control is feasible.
Senior Obama administration officials told HASC members Tuesday they are cautiously optimistic about the Russian offer.
“All of us are hopeful that this option could be a real solution to this crisis,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.
Kerry told the panel that senior officials have been discussing the Russian offer with counterparts in Moscow for several days. But he stressed the plan must be viewed with skepticism, and that it cannot merely be a way for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies to delay US military action.
But, Kerry told lawmakers, Obama has no intention of taking off the table the possibility of “limited” military strikes to punish Assad for using chemical weapons in an attack that killed over 1,000 people on Aug. 21.
In fact, Kerry said the very threat of using America’s military might is what prompted Russia to swoop in with a solution Kerry himself proposed on Monday morning.
Kerry’s revelation of Obama’s plan to allow the Russian plan to move through the UN came minutes after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced on the chamber’s floor he would vote against any use-of-force resolution.
McConnell said he has yet to hear from Obama or other administration officials just how Assad’s use of chemical weapons directly threatens US national security.
McConnell, facing a tough re-election bid, is the only of the four congressional leaders to oppose an attack on Syria with limited strikes. He said many in Washington and back in Kentucky “fail to understand” Obama’s strategy for Syria.
In another blow to Obama’s quest for 60 votes in the upper chamber, which could hold a procedural vote on a Syria resolution this week, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, announced his opposition.
Among other concerns, Portman said he wants a broad Syria strategy from the White House before any strikes begin. He said he is uncomfortable that the Obama administration is moving in the opposite order.
“On Syria: strike first, strategy later, is a recipe for disaster,” Portman tweeted after a lengthy floor speech.
Back on the House side, HASC Chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., pressed Kerry, Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey on how the White House would pay for cruise missile strikes on Assad’s chemical arms arsenal.
McKeon raised concerns that senior Navy officials say just keeping ships parked near Syria’s shore “costs $30 million a month.” Such costs are “coming out of readiness and O&M,” McKeon added, referring to the Pentagon’s accounts for operations and maintenance.
Dempsey responded by saying he “shares” McKeon’s concerns. But the nation’s top military officer said if a Syria mission is deemed as in the national interest and strikes are green-lighted, “we’ll find the money to pay for it.”
McKeon did not disagree, but warned “that money has to come from somewhere” — meaning from within the Pentagon’s existing budget.
Whether that is the case remains unclear. The White House has yet to inform congressional spending panels if a special Syria war funding bill would be necessary, senior congressional aides say.
Later during the hearing, Dempsey told another GOP member that “national security interests probably trump budgets.”
Hagel has estimated cruise missile strikes on a limited number of targets would cost in the tens of millions of dollars. But other independent analyses suggest the price tag could be in the hundreds of millions.
Republican and Democratic members of the House panel sounded skeptical about launching strikes in Syria, as well as whether doing so would even be effective.
For instance, HASC Ranking Member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., questioned how limited strikes would hold Assad accountable since the White House is not proposing a mission that would drive him from power.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., questioned whether Washington would be acting as a “vigilante” if it launched strikes without a UN mandate. The officials responded in the negative.
There were fireworks, indicating things are getting tense within the Syria debate. Kerry and Hagel bickered at different moments with GOP Reps. Jeff Miller of Florida and Randy Forbes of Virginia.