WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork) — The United States moved one step closer to launching military action against Syria on Wednesday, as a Senate panel voted to authorize force against President Bashar Assad’s regime, CBS 2′s Dick Brennan reported.
Legislation backing the use of force against the Syrian government cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a 10-7 vote after it was stiffened at the last minute to include a pledge of support for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power” in Syria’s civil war. It also would rule out U.S. combat operations on the ground.
The measure is expected to reach the Senate floor next week, although the timing for a vote is uncertain. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster.
The House also is reviewing Obama’s request, but its timetable is even less certain and the measure could face a rockier time there.
Obama’s request also received its first hearing in the House during the day, and Kerry responded heatedly when Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said that the secretary of state, Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden all had advocated for caution in past conflicts.
“Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you have abandoned past caution in favor of pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?” Duncan asked.
Kerry, who fought in Vietnam in the 1960s and voted to authorize the war against Iraq a decade ago, shot back angrily: “I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn’t a cautious thing to do when I did it.” When Duncan interrupted, the secretary of state said,” I’m going to finish, congressman,” and cited his support as senator for past U.S. military action in Panama and elsewhere.
After the hearing, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), told WCBS 880′s Steve Scott he was pleased with what he heard from the administration officials.
“I think that America has to act. Weapons of mass destruction, gassing your own people, that’s something that I just don’t think we can look the other way and those horrific pictures of children foaming at the mouth and then dying is something that will live with me as long as I live,” Engel told Scott Wednesday afternoon. “I’m convinced that this request that the President is making will be swift, will be fast, will not bog us down. I’m opposed to boots on the ground.”
Engel said he didn’t see a need for Obama to ask for Congressional authorization because the War Powers Act allows the commander-in-chief to initiate military involvement.
“I don’t think it’s there yet. I think it’s going to be long and hard and I really do expect the vote to be very, very close,” said Engel. “To me, it would be incomprehensible if we tied our hands and didn’t exert our leadership in the world. It would just be like shooting ourselves in the foot.”
The case for military action in Syria appears to be a tough sell. A new Pew Research poll shows only 29 percent of Americans support airstrikes, while 48 percent oppose them.
“I have yet to hear some concrete things of what the world is doing,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said on Capitol Hill. “I’m fearful that they will isolate the United States, where we are only doing something unilaterally while the world just sits back and watches.”
Obama was making his case for a strike while traveling in Stockholm, Sweden, on Wednesday.
“The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent,” he said.
The administration blames Assad for a chemical weapons attack that took place on Aug. 21 and says more than 1,400 civilians died, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.
The Senate panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated cruise missile strike against Syria last weekend and instead asked lawmakers to unite first behind such a plan.
The committee’s vote capped a hectic few days in which lawmakers first narrowed the scope of Obama’s request — limiting it to 90 days and banning combat operations on the ground _ and then widened it.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of aggressive U.S. military action in Syria, joined forces with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to add a provision calling for “decisive changes to the present military balance of power on the ground in Syria.”
At their urging, the measure was also changed to state that the policy of the United States is “to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favorable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria.” McCain, who has long accused Obama of timidity in Syria, argued that Assad will be willing to participate in diplomatic negotiations only if he believes he is going to lose the civil war he has been fighting for over two years.
The changes were enough to attract bipartisan support, but political fault lines were clear on a military action that polls show a war-weary public opposes.
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