WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain said Thursday that he intended to block President Barack Obama's nomination of Gen. Martin Dempsey to another two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. McCain, R-Ariz., made his announcement after he and the general had a testy exchange over whether the Obama administration was doing enough to assist the Syrian rebels.
"I'm actually going to put a hold on Gen. Dempsey until Gen. Dempsey responds to legitimate questions," Mr. McCain said just two days after helping to negotiate a deal to ease Senate confirmations for Obama nominees.
Asked whether he would place the hold only after the Armed Services Committee forwarded the nomination for a full Senate vote, Mr. McCain responded tersely, "Before, after and during."
"I want to see him answer the question," he added.
A vote by 60 senators can overcome a hold.
The confirmation battle grew out of a debate over whether the U.S. military should be ordered to more aggressively support Syrian rebels to oust the government of President Bashar Assad, including combat action such as establishing a no-fly zone.
Mr. McCain, who has urged U.S. military intervention in the Syrian civil war, traveled to Syria in late May to meet with rebel forces. It was the first time a U.S. senator had traveled to Syria to meet with the rebels since the conflict erupted two years ago.
But the tension between Mr. McCain, one of the Senate's most respected military veterans, and Gen. Dempsey, whose career includes multiple wartime commands, is over the proper role of the Joint Chiefs chairman in offering military advice to a president on national security issues with a clear political component -- such as going to war.
Mr. McCain began with a pointed question to the general: "Do you believe the continued costs and risks of our inaction in Syria are now worse for our national security interests than the costs and risks associated with limited military action?"
Gen. Dempsey said the administration had been active in supporting Syrian rebel forces, and described his role as advising the president on risks and benefits of military options. But he emphasized that only the civilian leadership could order military action.
His reply frustrated Mr. McCain, who said the Joint Chiefs chairman was the president's "sole military adviser," obliged to advocate for or against combat.
Mr. McCain challenged Gen. Dempsey to share his opinions with the Armed Services Committee -- as the chairman had pledged to do during the session's opening minutes. Gen. Dempsey said his private counsel to the president would remain private.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry helicoptered Thursday to a crowded refugee camp in Zaatari, Jordan, to take stock of the humanitarian crisis caused by the bitter fighting in neighboring Syria and highlight the U.S. efforts to provide aid.
But as frustrated Syrian refugees appealed for Western military intervention to halt the attacks by the Syrian government's forces, Mr. Kerry's visit soon became a graphic illustration of the limits of the Obama administration's policy.
"We are not satisfied with the American answers," Jamalat Abdulraouf Al-Hariri, 43, of Daara, Syria, said after meeting with Mr. Kerry. "We just need an action," she said, noting that the refugees want the United States to establish a no-fly zone or a protected area for civilians inside Syria. "We always hear words."
With 115,000 refugees, the Zaatari camp is going through a difficult transition. The camp, so close to the border that refugees can hear artillery fire at night, began as a temporary refuge, but prefabricated housing is replacing tents.
Once the Syrians -- four women and two men -- were ushered in, Mr. Kerry listened gravely as they pleaded for the United States to impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians against Assad warplanes and to set up a protected buffer area inside Syria to which refugees could return.