Obama bid for strike against Syria advances

Measure on chemical weapons attack heads to full Senate for vote

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's request for speedy congressional backing of a military strike in Syria advanced Wednesday toward a showdown Senate vote, while the commander-in-chief left open the possibility he would order retaliation for a deadly chemical weapons attack even if Congress withheld its approval.

Legislation backing the use of force against President Bashar Assad's 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, R-Ky., a conservative with strong Tea Party ties, has threatened a filibuster.

The House also is reviewing Mr. Obama's request, but its timetable is even less certain, and the measure could face a rockier time there.

The administration blames Mr. Assad for a chemical weapons attack that occurred 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 that rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.

The Senate panel's vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after Mr. Obama unexpectedly put off an anticipated cruise missile strike against Syria last weekend and instead asked lawmakers to unite first behind such a plan.

In Stockholm, Sweden, where Mr. Obama was traveling Wednesday, the White House praised the vote, and said it would continue to seek support for "a military response that is narrowly tailored to enforce the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and sufficient to protect the national security interests of the United States of America."

Earlier, at a news conference, Mr. Obama said, "I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security." In a challenge to lawmakers back home, he said Congress' credibility was on the line, not his own, despite saying a year ago that use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line."

Secretary of State John Kerry said he believes that Mr. Obama will address the nation on Syria in the next few days. The president returns home from overseas Friday night.

Mr. Obama's request also received its first House hearing Wednesday, and Mr. Kerry responded heatedly when Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said the secretary of state, Mr. 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?" Mr. Duncan asked.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

The Senate committee's vote capped a hectic few days in which lawmakers first narrowed the scope of Mr. 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 Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., 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."

Mr. McCain, who has long accused Mr. Obama of timidity in Syria, argued that Mr. Assad will be willing to participate in diplomatic negotiations only if he believes that he is going to lose the civil war he has been fighting for over two years.

The McCain-Coons 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. Seven Democrats and three Republicans supported the measure, while two Democrats and five Republicans opposed. Among Republicans, opposition came from lawmakers with the closest ties to Tea Party activists, including Mr. Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both presidential aspirants.

Among Democrats, Mr. Kerry's Senate replacement, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voted "present" after expressing misgivings.

In his comments in Sweden, the president sought to shift the onus for responding to Mr. Assad to Congress and the world at large. "I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line" with a treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. He added that "Congress set a red line" when it passed legislation a decade ago demanding Syria stop production of weapons of mass destruction.

His comments drew a disbelieving response from one Republican back home. "He needs to go back and read his quote," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., referring to a comment the president made slightly more than a year ago. On Aug. 20, 2012, Mr. Obama said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. ... That would change my calculus" about military action, he added at the time.

Elsewhere Wednesday:

• In Syria, al-Qaida-tied rebels were said to have launched an assault on a regime-held Christian mountain village in the densely populated western part of the country, and there was new fighting near Damascus as well.

• In France, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that failure to take action would allow Mr. Assad to launch more chemical attacks. By his country's intelligence, the Syrian has an abundance of material. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., citing a French estimate, said at the Senate meeting that Mr. Assad has an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons material and "may be, in the chemical weapons world, a superpower."

Mr. Kerry said Mr. Assad had used chemical weapons 11 times, but until the most recent attack, the president did not have a "compelling" enough case to push for a U.S. military response.

Few if any members of Congress dispute the administration's claim that Mr. Assad was responsible for the attack, and lawmakers in both parties appear far more focused on determining how they should respond.

Gaveling the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing to order, chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said that while it would be important to deter chemical weapons use by Mr. Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the United States would do if Syria retaliated. "The administration's Syria policy doesn't build confidence," he said.

In a letter to fellow Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she had received suggestions for House legislation "to add language to prevent boots on the ground, to tie the authorization more closely to the use of chemical weapons and to address concerns about an open-ended timetable."

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