Calls mount for Syria strike

Boehner supports, senators to back action by Obama

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack 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 suspected chemical weapons attack.

Officials said the emerging Senate measure would receive a vote today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Approval is likely.

"You're probably going to win" Congress' backing, conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a likely opponent of the measure, conceded in a late-afternoon exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Mr. Boehner, R-Ohio, leader of the House majority, emerged from a White House meeting 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. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's necessary."

Mr. Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties called for changes to the president's requested legislation, insisting that it be rewritten to restrict the type and duration of any military action.

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 on Mr. Obama's request for congressional legislation in support of the military reprisal he wants.

The measure would set a time limit of 60 days and says the president could extend that for 30 days more unless Congress casts a vote of disapproval. The measure also bars use of U.S. ground troops for "combat operations."

Mr. Kerry, testifying before the committee, signaled earlier that the troop restriction was acceptable to the administration.

"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Mr. 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."

Mr. Obama earlier in the day expressed confidence that Congress would respond to his call for support, and said Syrian President Bashar Assad's action "poses a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region."

The administration says 1,429 died from the Aug. 21 attack in a Damascus suburb. Casualty estimates by other groups are far lower, and Mr. Assad's government blames the episode on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil war that began more than two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country last week before completing a closely watched report.

Mr. 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, United Nations 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 Mr. Assad.

Mr. 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 that he would seek congressional approval.

Mr. Obama said he believes that he has that authority, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 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 will be stronger if lawmakers grant their support.

As Mr. Obama has often noted, the nation is weary of war after more than a decade of combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is residual skepticism a decade after Bush administration claims went unproven that Iraq's Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Additionally, a spate of polls indicates that the public opposes a military strike against Syria. A new Washington Post-ABC survey shows 59 percent against a strike and 36 percent in favor if the United States acts unilaterally; if allies take part, a narrower 51 percent still are opposed to a strike, and 46 percent favor it.

Among major allies, only France has publicly offered to join the United States in a strike, although President Francois Hollande says he will await Congress' decision. The British House of Commons rejected a military strike last week.

Yet the president's decision to seek congressional approval presents lawmakers with a challenge as well. Even some of Mr. Obama's sternest critics in Congress expressed strong concerns about 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 use of chemical weapons "only increases the likelihood of future [weapons of mass destruction] use by the regime, transfer to [the Lebanese militia] Hezbollah or acquisition by al-Qaida."

The largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, AIPAC, also announced its support for legislation to authorize a military strike.

Apart from the meeting with Mr. Obama, the White House provided closed-door briefings for members of Congress.

The United States maintains a significant military force in the eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. Navy released one warship in the region, leaving four cruise missile-armed destroyers -- the USS Stout, USS Gravely, USS Ramage and USS Barry.

There are two aircraft carriers in the region: the USS Nimitz strike group in the southern Red Sea and the USS Harry S Truman in the Arabian Sea. Also in the area is an amphibious warship, the USS San Antonio, with about 300 Marines aboard.

• At the G-20 summit, President Barack Obama will seek support for action on Syria. Page A-4

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