Senate Panel Votes 10-7 To Authorize Force In Syria

Sep 4, 2013

Update 3:30 p.m.: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted 10 to 7 in favor of a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria. No votes included Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, Florida Republican Marco Rubio and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall.

There hasn’t been a formal debate about the use of military force in the U.S. Congress since the Iraq War.

Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opened that debate again, responding to President Obama’s request for authorization to launch military strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, after the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

The committee heard from Secretary of State John Kerry, who used to chair the committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who used to be a member, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey.

We listen to some of the back-and-forth from the hearing.

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This is HERE AND NOW. And just moments ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 7 in favor of a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria. The no votes included Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, Florida Republican Marco Rubio, and New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall. Ed Markey of Massachusetts voted present. The vote followed yesterday's testimony before the committee. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey advocated the use of force against the Assad regime for his alleged use of chemical weapons. This is the first formal debate about the use of military force in the U.S. Congress since the Iraq War.

Let's listen now to some of the back-and-forth from yesterday, starting with Senator Rubio questioning General Dempsey.


SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: Can we structure an attack that'll - that tips that calculation where you'll basically decide that he would rather risk being overrun by rebels than risking a limited attack from the U.S. if he uses these chemical weapons? He has to decide, I'll use chemical weapons and take on a limited U.S. attack in the future, or I'll risk being overrun by the rebels. How are we going to unbalance that and lead him to calculate that he's better off risking losing to the rebels?

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, Senator, I think the - maybe even more insidious than that, he's reached the point where he now thinks of chemical weapons as just another weapon in his arsenal, and that's the part that makes this so very dangerous. And I think that as I provided advice on what targets may be appropriate, I certainly want to degrade his capabilities coming out of this. I want to come out of it stronger than we go into it.

RUBIO: Leads me to my second question. How confident are you and how confident can you express to this committee you are, that we can, in fact, put in place a military plan that's limited in scope and duration, that can effectively degrade Assad's capability to carry out future chemical attacks?

DEMPSEY: I'm confident in the capabilities we can bring to bear to deter and degrade. And it won't surprise you to know that we will have not only an initial target set but subsequent targets sets, should they become necessary.

HOBSON: General Dempsey and Senator Rubio. Well, Senator Dick Durbin is a Democrat from Illinois who voted against the Iraq War, Kerry and Hagel voted for it when they were members of the Senate.


SENATOR DICK DURBIN: Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel, I take this very seriously. I understand this president. I understand his values. But I take it very seriously that the language be as precise as possible when it comes to this whole question of expanding this mission into something much larger, something that would engage us in a new level of warfare or a new authority for this president or a future president. So I hope that we can have your word and assurance that we can work together in a bipartisan fashion to craft this in a way that carefully achieves our goal but does not expand authority anywhere beyond what is necessary.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Senator, thank you. A very important statement. And you not only have my word that it will not do that, but we will work with you very, very closely, with the White House, in shaping this resolution. We - there's no hidden agenda. There's no subterfuge. There's no surrogate strategy here. There's one objective and that objective is to make sure we live up to our obligations of upholding the norm with respect to international behavior on the use of chemical weapons. And that is what the president is seeking in this authorization.


In addition, New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall pressed Secretary Kerry on the question, what happens if air strikes weaken President Assad and extremists move in.


SENATOR TOM UDALL: Secretary Kerry, by degrading his capacity, don't you, in fact, make him weaker and make the people out there like al-Nusra and al-Qaida and these other extremist forces stronger? And this is what I want General Dempsey to talk about a little bit, too, but...

KERRY: Well, I'm happy to...

UDALL: ...could you answer that? Could you answer that?

KERRY: I'm happy...

UDALL: By degrading him, you make these extremist forces stronger, do you not?

KERRY: No, I don't believe you do. As a matter of fact, I think you actually make the opposition stronger, and the opposition is getting stronger by the day now. But I think it's important also to look at this because you raised the question of, doesn't this make the United States the policeman in the world? No. It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184-nation strong, has accepted the responsibility for. And if the United States, which has the greatest capacity to do that, doesn't help lead that effort, then shame on us. Then we're not standing up to our multilateral and humanitarian and strategic interest.

YOUNG: And Kentucky Republican Rand Paul wanted to know what happens if President Obama loses the vote in Congress. Would there still be an attack?


SENATOR RAND PAUL: I mean, make me proud today, Secretary Kerry. Stand up for us and say, you're going to obey the Constitution. And if we vote you down - which is unlikely, by the way - but if we do, you would go with what the people say through their Congress, and you wouldn't go forward with a war that your Congress votes against. Can you give me a better answer, Secretary Kerry?

KERRY: I can't give you a different answer than the one I gave you. I don't know what the president's decision is, but I will tell you this: It ought to make you proud, because he still has the constitutional authority, and he would be in keeping with the Constitution.

PAUL: Well, I disagree with you there. I don't believe he has the constitutional authority. I think Congress had - has this. Madison was very explicit. When he wrote the Federalist Papers he wrote that history supposes, or the Constitution supposes what history demonstrates, that the executive is the - is the branch most likely to go to war, and therefore, the Constitution vested that power in the Congress. It's explicit and runs throughout all of Madison's writings. This power is a congressional power, and it is not an executive power. They didn't say big war, small war. They didn't say boots on the ground, not boots on the ground. They said declare war. Ask the people on the ships launching the missiles whether they're involved with war or not.

If this is real, you will abide by the verdict of Congress. You're probably going to win, just go ahead and say it's real. And let's have a real debate in this country, and not a meaningless debate that, in the end, you lose and you say, oh, well. We have the authority, anyway. We're going to go ahead and go to war, anyway.

KERRY: Senator, I assure you there's nothing meaningless, and there is everything real about what is happening here.

PAUL: Only if you adhere to what we vote on. Only if our vote makes a difference. Only if our vote is binding is it meaningful.

KERRY: And I will leave to the man who was elected to be president of the United States the responsibility for telling you what his decision is, if and when that moment came. But the president intends to win this vote, and he's not going to make prior announcements.

PAUL: We've had a lot of discussion about...

HOBSON: Secretary of State John Kerry, talking with Senator Rand Paul during yesterday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on whether to authorize the use of force against the Assad regime. Again, the results of the vote just in: 10 in favor, seven against. And of the senators we've just heard from, Senator Paul voted no. So did Senator Udall and Senator Rubio. Senator Durbin voted yes. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.