WASHINGTON — At the end of a day when senators from both parties pressed President Obama’s top Cabinet officers to provide guarantees that no U.S. troops would be sent to Syria,
Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on the wording of a resolution that would bar the use of U.S. ground troops for “combat operations” while giving Obama authority to carry out a strike against Syria, for a period of 60 days, with one 30-day extension.
The resolution would permit the deployment of a small rescue mission in the event of an emergency, the aides said.
Obama would be required within 30 days of enactment of the resolution to send Congress a plan for a diplomatic solution to end the violence in Syria, according to a senior Senate aide familiar with the agreement.
A committee vote on the measure could come as early as Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is expected to schedule a full Senate vote for early next week, aides said.
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Obama is now headed to Sweden and the Group of 20 summit in Russia, where he will try to shore up an international coalition to punish Syria for a chemical-weapons attack and will probably encounter some of the same debates that are cleaving the Capitol.
Before his departure, the White House intensified what has become the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Obama’s presidency as it deployed members of his war council and enlisted political alumni of his 2008 campaign to press the argument with the public.
While Obama gained a key supporter in House Speaker John Boehner for responding militarily to the use of chemical weapons in Syria two weeks ago, a contentious Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing showed how much work remains him to close the deal and gain congressional authorization.
The most spirited exchange came toward the end of the 3½-hour hearing when Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., clashed over the purpose and possible consequences of a U.S. military strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“I don’t know that we can say that by attacking them, he’s not going to launch another chemical attack,” Paul said.
Paul ticked off several risks, among them assaults on Israel, increased Russian involvement in the Middle East and more aggressive behavior by Iran.
“There are all kinds of unknowns that I can’t tell you absolutely the answer, and neither can you,” Paul told Kerry. “But I think there’s a reasonable argument that the world may be less stable because of this, and that it may not deter another chemical-weapons attack.”
An angered Kerry turned the tables, asking Paul: “If the United States of America doesn’t do this, senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?”
When Paul said twice the answer was unknown, Kerry snapped: “It’s unknown, senator? Senator, it’s not unknown. If the United States of America doesn’t hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it’s a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing (Wednesday) and learn that.”
Kerry plans to brief senators in a private session Wednesday where he presumably will talk in more detail about classified information.
Earlier in the open hearing, Kerry stirred controversy when he initially refused to rule out the possibility of sending any U.S. troops to Syria in the aftermath of an American strike that would likely be delivered by Tomahawk cruise missiles from Navy destroyers off its coast.
Asked by Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate panel, whether a congressional resolution authorizing military action should contain “a prohibition for having American boots on the ground,” Kerry responded: “Mr. Chairman, it would be preferable not to have a prohibition, not because there is any intention or plan or any desire whatsoever to have boots on the ground.”
After saying that Obama will provide “every assurance in the world” that no troops would be used, Kerry sketched a scenario in which they might.
“But in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical-weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra (a Qaida-linked group in Syria) or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us — the British, the French and others — to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president of the United States to secure our country.”
Kerry’s lengthy scenario drew rebukes from Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s senior Republican, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as well as a gentler response from Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.
By the end, Kerry had backed off and said the congressional resolution could contain an explicit prohibition against follow-on U.S. troops in Syria, though he continued to acknowledge that down the road their presence couldn’t be absolutely ruled out.
The White House had no immediate reaction to the Senate measure reported Tuesday night, but Obama said earlier in the day he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request the White House made over the weekend.
Recent presidents have all claimed the authority to undertake limited military action without congressional backing. Some have followed up with such action.
Obama said he, too, believes he has that authority, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that even Congress’ refusal to authorize the president wouldn’t negate the power of the commander in chief.
The president also has stated that the United States will be stronger if lawmakers grant their support. But neither Obama nor his aides has stated what options would be left should Congress reject his call.
A poll released Tuesday suggested that Americans haven’t come around to Obama’s view, with 48 percent of those surveyed opposing a U.S. strike against Syria, 29 percent supporting one and the rest uncertain.
Three-quarters of Americans believe U.S. airstrikes would likely create a backlash, and 61 percent fear they would likely lead to a long-term U.S. military engagement there, according to the poll by the Pew Research Center.
Includes material from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press