The Senate began accelerated hearings on President Barack Obama's request for authorization to strike Syria Tuesday, with the cost, scope and consequences of a new conflict in the Middle East on lawmakers' minds.
Just before the first public hearing formally got under way at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., greeted each other and embraced on the dais. At the same time, the first anti-war protester stood up, dressed in pink and carrying signs calling for opposition to U.S. military strikes in Syria.
"President Obama is not asking America to go to war," Kerry said, noting that his administration colleagues at the witness table (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey), along with McCain, had seen war up close. Kerry sought to allay lawmakers' concerns, saying the intelligence is solid, unlike in Iraq, and that America would not get dragged into another long war.
When a second protester stood up and shouted following his prepared statement, Kerry referenced his first appearance before the Foreign Relations panel — which came under very different circumstances, when he testified in 1971 against the ongoing war in Vietnam.
The hearing followed a closed briefing and a morning meeting with many lawmakers at the White House.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking member on the Foreign Relations panel, told reporters that the use of force resolution text could be written by night's end.
Corker said a markup will be held soon. It will be narrowed from the draft sent to Capitol Hill by the White House on Saturday. Floor votes are expected next week.
"There are discussions about when the markup should occur,” Corker said. “I know that getting something out there for people to be able to digest and look at, at the same time not doing it so quickly that its not a thoughtful piece of work is important. I know that our staff has been working toward that end for some time, even before the president made his announcement. But I have a sense that there is a really good chance that the Menendez staff and our staff will come to terms."
Corker was referring to the Democratic majority staff of the Foreign Relations panel, of which Robert Menendez, D-N.J., serves as chairman.
Expedited procedures could allow that resolution to get to the Senate floor quickly without the possibility of a filibuster. That would require certain procedural moves by the White House and the Senate leadership, however.
Hagel also sought to reassure lawmakers of the limited nature of the administration's aims.
"In defining our military objectives, we have made clear that we are not seeking to resolve the underlying conflict in Syria through direct military force. Instead, we are contemplating actions that are tailored to respond to the use of chemical weapons," Hagel said in his opening remarks. "A political solution created by the Syrian people is the only way to ultimately end the violence in Syria, and Secretary Kerry is leading international efforts to help the parties in Syria move towards a negotiated transition. We are also committed to doing more to assist the Syrian opposition. But Assad must be held accountable for using these weapons in defiance of the international community."
Corker planned to ask about aid to the rebels; the effect on the budget is also sure to come up in the next few days, particularly because the Pentagon budget remains subject to sequester cuts. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said he intended to ask questions about that subject, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said he had similar concerns.
Hagel and Kerry are both quite familiar with Tuesday's venue — they both served on the Foreign Relations Committee as senators and Kerry was the panel's chairman when he left the chamber to go to Foggy Bottom.
"What we do in the face of the chemical attack by the Assad regime against innocent civilians will send a signal to the world that such weapons, in violation of international law, cannot be used with impunity," Menendez said in his opening statement.
"The question is: Will we send a message that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, by anyone, for any reason?" pondered Menendez. "Will we — in the name of all that is human and decent — authorize the use of American military power against the inexcusable, indiscriminate and immoral use of chemical weapons? Or will we stand down?"
Menendez noted before questioning began that more detailed questions could be asked at a closed session on Wednesday.
Menendez and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are supportive of Obama's push for the use of force against Syria. Speaker John A. Boehner also announced his backing on Tuesday, joining previous comments by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a statement Tuesday encouraged the Obama administration to say more about the case publicly.
"I appreciate the president's briefing today at the White House and would encourage him to continue updating the American people. While we are learning more about his plans, Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about what it is he thinks needs to be done — and can be accomplished — in Syria and the region," McConnell said.