Senate Committee Narrows Scope Of Syria Force Authorization


Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ)

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) will consider revisions to its draft authorization for President Obama to launch limited strikes against Syria on Wednesday, paving the way for what is appearing to be a contentious debate on both sides of the Capitol building.

The four page draft is the result of collaboration between SFRC Chairman Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a rare moment of bipartisanship in recent months, taken in the aftermath of an chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed more than 1,000 civilians. The two senators’ offices drew up the text on Tuesday, with input from the offices of Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), following administration testimony on the matter.

The Senate version makes several key changes to the draft legislation that the White House sent to the Hill on Saturday after Obama’s surprise announcement that he would seek Congressional approval for any strikes on Syria. In particular, the new draft sets a deadline that was absent in the administration’s version, giving Obama 60 days to launch an attack on Syria with the possibility of a 30-day extension.

The Menendez-Corker bill also adds several restrictions on what kind of force is authorized compared to the original draft. While the White House wanted a broad authority to act, the SFRC leaders added that Obama would only be cleared to attack “in a limited and tailored manner against legitimate military targets in Syria,” closing the possibility of taking action in neighboring countries tangentially related to the conflict. The Senate draft also strikes “proliferation (including the transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors)” of chemical weapons as a situation in which the green-light should be given for military action.

Section 3 of the Senate measure in particular reflects the highlight of yesterday’s Senate hearing, in which Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to walkback saying that the U.S. could utilize ground troops in a hypothetical situation where it was necessary to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. Specifically, it maintains that the bill “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces on the ground in Syria for the purpose of combat operations.” That does, however, possibly leave the window open for U.S. forces to either serve in advisory capacities or the use of Special Forces and other methods in covert operations.

That leeway comes along with a surprisingly broad Congressional acknowledgement of Obama’s claims of independent constitutional authority to act in Syria. As the Lawfare blog pointed out in its analysis, the “Whereas” sections of the bill, those establishing the reasons for the bill’s necessity, all grant wide amounts of leeway in terms of the president’s ability to act in Syria. In effect, the draft authorization “gives significant support to the position that the President has some (uncertain) independent constitutional authority to use force in Syria, regardless of what Congress authorizes, and (perhaps) beyond what Congress authorizes,” according to Jack Goldsmith.

The bill also adds on several provisions demanding frequent reports to Congress on how the mission is proceeding and further limiting the scope of the bill to only allow force “under the conditions, for the specific purposes, and for the limited period of time set forth in this resolution.” It further demands that the administration, within 30 days of passage, produce for Congress an “integrated United States Government strategy for achieving a negotiated political settlement to the conflict in Syria, including a comprehensive review of current and planned U.S. diplomatic, political, economic, and military policy towards Syria.” One thing the bill does not deal with is the potential costs of an use of force against Syria.

Despite the bipartisan efforts behind crafting the bill, there’s already dissension within the ranks on whether the votes are there to pass. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), an advocate for military intervention in Syria for more than a year now, has been hot and cold on the administration’s efforts to gain congressional approval on launching an attack on Syria. McCain first told reporters on Tuesday that after meeting with President Obama he would support the authorization, only on Wednesday to say that he disagrees with the Menendez-Corker bill for being too limited and too limiting.

McCain has a surprising ally in his frequent foe Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). While Paul has said he opposes military action in Syria and that he’ll perhaps even filibuster the force authorization measure, he said on Fox News on Tuesday that he thinks the authorization is also too limiting.

“You know, I’m a big sticker that Congress initiates war, but I think one of the problems of this resolution is, and this is why agree with John McCain, this resolution is going to restrict the power of the President to execute the war,” Paul said. “So, I think the resolution and narrowing the focus and saying, hey, is this just going to be a baby, a little small war, we’re really not going to do too much — we’re not going to have regime change — I think that’s Congress actually getting to involved in how we would execute war. The big decision should be whether or not we initiate war.”

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is set to have its own hearing on Syria on Wednesday, with Kerry, Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel all performing encores of Tuesday’s Senate testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While the committee has seen the Senate’s draft, the House GOP leadership has yet to decide on how to proceed should it pass, an HFAC committee staffer told ThinkProgress, with the House possibly still drafting its own version of the legislation. Winning support in the House on Syria has always been more of a challenge for the administration, as ThinkProgress’ latest whip count illustrates.