Obama gains Boehner's support for Syria strike
WASHINGTON - President Obama gained ground Tuesday in his drive for congressional backing of a military strike against Syria, winning critical support from House Speaker John Boehner, while key Senate Democrats and Republicans agreed to back a no-combat-troops-on-the-ground action in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack.
Officials said the emerging Senate measure would receive a vote Wednesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Approval is likely.
Boehner emerged from a meeting at the White House and said the United States has "enemies around the world that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of behavior."
"I'm going to support the president's call for action, and I believe my colleagues should support this call for action," the leader of House Republicans said.
In the Senate, the compromise was the work of Sens. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) and Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), among others. They are the chairman and senior Republican, respectively, on the Foreign Relations Committee, which held a lengthy hearing during the day.
The measure sets a time limit of 60 days and says the president could extend that for 30 days more unless Congress votes otherwise. It also bars the use of U.S. ground troops for "combat operations."
The White House had no immediate reaction to the Senate measure, although Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying earlier before the committee, signaled that the troop restriction was acceptable to the administration. "There's no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground. He was one of three senior officials to make the case for military intervention at the Senate committee hearing.
"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry said in a strongly worded opening statement. He added, "This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter."
Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress would respond to his call for support and said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's action "poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region."
The president met top lawmakers at the White House before embarking on an overseas trip to Sweden and Russia for a Group of 20 summit, leaving the principal lobbying at home for the next few days to Vice President Biden and other members of his administration.
Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat shoulder to shoulder at the Senate committee hearing while, a few hundred miles away, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged caution. He said any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and bloodshed, and he advised that such strikes would be legal only in self-defense under the U.N. Charter or if approved by the organization's Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto power in the council to block action against Assad.
Obama set the fast-paced events in motion Saturday, when he unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.
Recent presidents have all claimed the authority to undertake limited military action without congressional backing.
Obama said he, too, believes he has that authority, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said during the day that even Congress' refusal to authorize the president wouldn't negate the power of the commander in chief.
Still, the president also has stated that the United States would be stronger if lawmakers grant their support.
Even some of Obama's sternest critics in Congress expressed strong concerns about the repercussions of a failure to act.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) said after Tuesday's White House meeting that a failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons "only increases the likelihood of future WMD [weapons of mass destruction] use by the regime, transfer to Hezbollah, or acquisition by al-Qaeda."
Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) said after a session that he was "still listening" to the administration.
Others were firmly opposed. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R., Okla.) said on Fox News, "It may sound real easy when people like Secretary Kerry say that 'it is going to be quick and we're going to go in, we're going to send a few cruise missiles, wash our hands and go home.' It doesn't work that way. This could be a war in the Middle East, it's serious."
Democrats, too, were divided, although it appeared the administration's biggest concern was winning support among deeply conservative Republicans who have battled with the president on issue after issue.
While announcing his support for military action and urging fellow Republicans to come to the same conclusion, Boehner firmly put the burden of rounding up votes on the administration
Shortly after Boehner left the White House after the meeting, his spokesman Michael Steel said, "Everyone understands that it is an uphill battle to pass a resolution, and the speaker expects the White House to provide answers to members' questions and take the lead on any whipping effort."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was noncommittal about Obama's request. "While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done - and can be accomplished - in Syria and the region."