Obama wins Senate panel's backing on Syria strike

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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,

a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster.

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

there.

The administration blames Assad for a

chemical weapons attack that took place on 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 rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.

The Senate panel’s vote marked the first formal response in Congress, four days after 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 Obama was

traveling on 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 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 the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red

line.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said he believes Obama will address the nation on Syria in the next few days. The president

returns home from overseas Friday night.

Obama’s request also received its first

hearing in the House during the day, and Kerry responded heatedly when

Rep. Jeff Duncan,

R-S.C., said that the secretary of state, 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?” Duncan asked.

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 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 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 Democratic Sen. Chris

Coons of Delaware 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.” McCain, who has long accused

Obama of timidity in Syria, argued that Assad will be willing

to participate in diplomatic negotiations only if he believes he

is going to lose the civil war he has been fighting for over

two years.

The 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 Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio,

both presidential aspirants.

Among Democrats, Kerry’s replacement in the Senate, 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 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,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said, referring to a comment the

president made

slightly more than a year ago. On Aug. 20, 2012, 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 on Wednesday:

— In Syria, al-Qaida-linked rebels were said to have launched an assault on a government-held Christian mountain village in

the densely populated western part of the country, and there was new fighting near Damascus as well.

— In Rome, Pope Francis underscored Vatican opposition to threatened military strikes against Syria, urging Catholics and

non-Catholics alike to take part in a day of fasting and prayer for peace on Saturday.

— In France, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that failure to take action would allow 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 Assad has an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons material and “may be in the chemical

weapons world a superpower.”

Kerry said 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 Assad was responsible for the attack, and lawmakers

in both parties appear far more focused on determining how they should respond.

Gaveling the House committee hearing to order, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said that while it would be important to deter the

use of chemical weapons by Assad and others, there remained many unanswered questions, including what the U.S. would do if

Assad retaliated.

“The administration’s Syria policy doesn’t build confidence,” he said.

In a letter to her rank and file, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said she had received suggestions for legislation

in the House “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.”