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Where Key Lawmakers Stand on Attacking Syria

Where Key Lawmakers Stand on Attacking Syria

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 31, 2013

The rowdy debate in Britain’s Parliament on Thursday -- culminating in a vote against using U.K. military forces in strikes against Syria -- had many U.S. lawmakers wondering aloud: Why aren’t we doing that?

Instead, that same night, Pentagon, national security and intelligence officials briefed about two dozen members of Congress on a conference call (with declassified information), laying out a case for some kind of U.S. military action against a Syrian regime accused of using chemical weapons on its own people.

But the administration’s phone call apparently changed few minds. Responses from lawmakers -- who have been in recess for most of the month -- have ranged from requests to bring members back to Washington for a vote before any missiles are launched to support for limited air strikes. Meanwhile, skepticism abounds on Capitol Hill over what the U.S. can realistically hope to accomplish in Syria.

John Boehner has not joined a bipartisan coalition of more than 100 members requesting open debate and a vote on the House floor. Instead, the speaker is pressing the president to make his case to the American public while continuing to consult with leaders in Congress. Boehner does not seem inclined to summon members (for whom the recess is not scheduled to end until Sept. 9) back to the Capitol. For one thing, President Obama said as late as Friday afternoon that he still hasn’t made a decision about what action he may take -- meaning that even those who say they want input are unsure what they would be asked to support. (The president has indicated, however, that there would be no U.S. troops on the ground or long-term military presence.) 

If the president were to wait for a vote, it’s far from clear that he would receive a favorable response, especially given the public’s weariness from two Middle East wars. An NBC News poll shows that 80 percent of Americans think Obama should get approval from Congress before using military force in Syria. But there is some nuance: 50 percent favor the use of cruise missiles, while 44 percent oppose them; and 50 percent say the U.S. should not intervene at all.

Heading into Labor Day weekend, here is a roundup of key lawmakers’ stated positions on Syria:

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the ranking Republican member, have both endorsed a limited U.S. military response.

“Nothing in Syria has good choices in it,” Menendez said in a Friday television appearance. “But if you permit a global message that the use of chemical weapons can be done with impunity, then I think you are buying yourself a much bigger challenge in the world.”

Corker is on record as favoring congressional approval prior to a strike, but he stopped short of saying such a vote is requirement for action. “While I’m opposed to American boots on the ground in Syria, I would support surgical, proportional military strikes given the strong evidence of the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical warfare,” he has said. “Whatever limited action is taken should not further commit the U.S. in Syria beyond the current strategy to strengthen the vetted, moderate opposition.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, hasn’t come out squarely in opposition to airstrikes, but he did call on the administration to provide military aid to the Syrian rebels and to wait to launch an attack until United Nations inspectors complete their work.

The top Republican member on the committee, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, is opposed to a U.S. attack on Syria. “I’m opposed to military intervention,” he said Friday morning. “We don't have the resources.”

Sen. John Cornyn didn’t go that far, but after Thursday night’s conference call, the Texas Republican told reporters he doesn’t think the White House has a strategic plan: “Tonight the administration failed to explain how they intend to effectively respond to the situation.”

Howard “Buck” McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, has criticized Obama for ignoring his own “red line” on Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction. “Using chemical weapons against innocent civilians is unacceptable,” the California Republican said early this week. “No regime can be allowed to do so with impunity”

New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has been making the moral case for military intervention, citing the gruesome pictures of young children foaming at the mouth. “There’s no doubt that Bashar al-Assad was directly involved, that he knew what happened,” he said in an interview with CNN Friday morning. “He has to approve this. And he is aligning himself with a terrorist group, Hezbollah. He’s become Iran’s proxy in Syria.”

Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, supports the administration -- while acknowledging the political pitfalls. “It is clear that the American people are weary of war,” she said. “However, Assad gassing his own people is an issue of our national security, regional stability and global security. We must be clear that the United States rejects the use of chemical weapons by Assad or any other regime.”

Republican Rep. Scott Rigell, a member of Armed Services who represents a Navy-heavy district in Norfolk, Va., is a leader among lawmakers demanding that the president seek authorization from Congress before striking. So far, over 100 House members -- of both parties -- have signed his letter to the president. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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