The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday voted to give President Barack Obama the power to a launch a military attack to punish Syria for using chemical weapons.
The vote was 10-7. It marked the first time in more than a decade — since a 2002 resolution that preceded the Iraq war — that members of Congress have voted to authorize military action.
The resolution, which could be voted on by the full Senate as early as next week, forbids Obama from using ground troops in Syria and allows the military response to last no longer than three months.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top administration officials went before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to confront skeptics and press the administration’s case. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel estimated the cost of a limited strike at tens of millions of dollars.
However, Kerry told the hearing that Arab League countries had offered to pay for the unseating President Bashar Assad if the United States took the lead militarily.
"Yes, that offer is on the table," Kerry said in response to a question from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
The Senate yes votes comprised seven Democrats and three Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, who had expressed reservations that the United States was not doing enough to arm the rebels fighting Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
"We commend the Senate for moving swiftly and for working across party lines on behalf of our national security," read a statement from the White House. "We will continue to work with Congress to build on this bipartisan 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."
Kerry told Congress that American inaction would “live in infamy,” and he drew analogies to black marks of history — the appeasement of Adolf Hitler before World War II and the U.S.’ refusal to accept a boat full of Jewish refugees from Germany in 1939.
“There are moments when you have to make a decision,” he said. “And I think this is one of those moments.”
He added: "A lot of people out in the Middle East count on us."
"They count on us to help them be able to transition," Kerry said.
Asked in Sweden whether he would strike Syria even if Congress does not authorize force, Obama said: “I believe that Congress will approve it.”
He added: “I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress, but I did not take this to Congress just because it’s an empty exercise. I think it’s important to have Congress’ support on it.”
The president said he was mindful that memories of the Iraq war were fresh, particularly in Europe.
“Keep in mind I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq, and am not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence,” he said. “But having done a thoroughgoing evaluation of the information that is currently available, I can say with high confidence that chemical weapons were used.”
At Wednesday’s House hearing, Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, expressed deep reservations and asked whether Obama would have “bothered to come to Congress” if the British Parliament had passed its own resolution supporting military force. Parliament rejected it instead.
“I believe he absolutely would have,” Kerry said.
In a tense exchange, Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., said he had recently spoken to a group of eighth-graders “who get it. They get it that we shouldn’t be drug into someone else’s civil war where there are no good guys.”
He praised Kerry for always showing caution with respect to the American armed forces, then asked him whether power was “so intoxicating” to the Obama administration that it couldn’t resist “pulling the trigger” on a conflict.
“I volunteered to fight for my country, and that wasn’t a cautious thing to do when I did it,” Kerry shot back. “I am not going to sit here and be told by you that I don’t have a sense of what the judgment is with respect to this.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about potential Syrian retaliation. Among the risks he mentioned were that Syria could use rockets to attack its neighbors or American facilities, could encourage surrogate groups to attack American interests or could stage a cyberattack.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declined a meeting with a Russian delegation hoping to discuss possible U.S. military involvement in Syria, an aide to the speaker said Wednesday.
"The speaker has declined the Russian embassy's request that he meet with a delegation," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel confirmed to NBC News.
NBC News' Becky Bratu and Reuters contributed to this report.
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First published September 5 2013, 3:20 AM