WASHINGTON — The Obama administration pressed Congress Sunday for an expansive green light to attack Syria, amid continued Middle East turmoil and Capitol Hill skepticism from both right and left.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday deployed himself across five television networks to make the case for military action against the Syrian government for what he said was the use of sarin gas on civilians.
“We have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus (that) hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “So this case is building and this case will build.”
While he worked to convince Congress that the intelligence is accurate about the use of chemical weapons, Congress expressed more skepticism about the wisdom of a potential air strike as well as the language of the war powers authorization being sought by the White House. A round of briefings and press sessions Sunday led only to congressional promises to rewrite Obama’s proposal and a reiteration of Capitol Hill concerns.
“What I’m troubled by is after the strike … the Assad regime is still there,” said Rep. Scott Rigell, R- Va. “Let’s say we attack two air force bases. Certainly it would result in loss of life of young Syrian conscripts who have absolutely nothing to do with the (chemical attack), yet the Assad regime is still in place.”
Though the administration on Friday released a four-page intelligence summary declaring with a “high degree of confidence” that Syria had used chemical weapons, Kerry’s statements Sunday were the first to identify the specific chemical allegedly used.
Originally developed in Germany prior to World War II as a pesticide, sarin is a colorless and tasteless nerve agent that can cause convulsions, paralysis and death. Even exposure to a tiny drop on the skin can cause sweating and muscle twitching, the Centers for Disease Control notes. The United States during the Cold War developed a multi-ton sarin stockpile of its own, as did the Soviet Union, but both countries have since signed an international treaty outlawing the use of all chemical weapons.
Syria President Bashar al-Assad runs one of five countries not to have either signed or ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.
“Bashar al-Assad now joins a list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war,” Kerry said on NBC. “Now it’s up to the Congress of the United States to join (President Barack Obama) in affirming the international norm with respect to enforcement against the use of chemical weapons.”
Obama’s proposed language for Congressional approval would authorize the president to use force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate” in order to “prevent or deter the use or proliferation” of chemical or biological weapons, as well as other “weapons of mass destruction.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday about Syria. The House is sticking to its pre-planned summer schedule and will return for consideration of Syria the week of Sept. 9.
Overall, lawmakers appeared divided into several groups. Some hawks want to strike hard and fast, some lawmakers want to stay out altogether and a good number want to hear more from both the administration and their constituents. The most recent surveys show a majority of U.S. residents surveyed oppose military action in Syria.
“If the vote were held today, it would probably be a ‘no’ vote,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. “It is going to be difficult to get the vote through in Congress, especially when there is going to be time during the next nine days for opposition to build up to it.”
“The ‘limited’ military response endorsed by President Obama shows no clear goal, tactical objective, or in fact any coherence whatsoever, and is supported neither by myself nor the American people,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “President Obama has gone from leading from behind, to not leading at all, to now hiding behind Congress.”
Dangerously for Obama, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sounded similarly skeptical. The two veteran lawmakers, though they have given Obama some cover in the past, are now declaring that they “cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield.”
From the opposite flank, some conservatives and liberals are united for disparate reasons in saying the United States should simply steer clear of Syria altogether. The senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Sunday on Fox News Sunday that he doesn’t think Congress will approve the authorization.
“Another thing we want to know, and my constituents ask over and over, is what is the relationship to the United States?” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “In other words, is there a threat?”
Hannah Allam, Anita Kumar, David Lightman, Lesley Clark and William Douglas contributed.
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