September 3, 2013

Vote on Syria looms for 2016 White House hopefuls

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Backing President Barack Obama's plea for military action against Syria could haunt Senate Republicans thinking hard about a White House bid in 2016.

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Sen. Rand Paul, D-Ky. rides an escalator on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, on his way to attend a joint Senate and House intelligence closed-door briefing on Syria. A vote for war can make or break a White House hopeful. The politically fraught decision weighs on potential 2016 Republican candidates Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined by fellow committee members, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., center, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., questions Secretary of State John Kerry during committee's hearing on President Barack Obama's request for congressional authorization for military intervention in Syria, a response to last month's alleged sarin gas attack in the Syrian civil war, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leading anti-interventionist within the GOP ranks, was steadfast in his opposition on Tuesday, saying he was unlikely to back even a narrow resolution giving Obama the authority to respond militarily to the Syrian government.

Paul tangled with Secretary of State John Kerry at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing, repeatedly asking the top diplomat for assurances that U.S. military action wouldn't hurt Israel or destabilize the region.

A libertarian favorite, Paul also engaged in a fierce debate over the constitutional power to use military force, and whether Obama would ignore an unfavorable vote in Congress. Kerry sought to reassure Paul that the administration didn't consider congressional action meaningless.

Paul told Kerry: "If you do not say explicitly that you will abide by this vote, you're making a joke of us. You're making us into theater."

The administration says it has proof that the Assad regime used deadly chemical weapons in an attack on Damascus suburbs and must respond. It places the number killed at 1,429 people, including 426 children. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at 502.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a vocal critic of Syria's Bashar Assad and a proponent of arming the rebels, criticized the Obama administration for failing to heed his call and the pleas of others to act two years ago.

"When America ignores these problems, these problems don't ignore us," Rubio told senior administration officials at the Senate hearing. "Yes, this is a horrible incident where perhaps a 1,000 people died, but before this incident 100,000 people had died ... and nothing happened."

The Syria vote is complicated for potential Republican presidential candidates, who hardly want to appear weak on national security but fear the criticism if the United States is drawn into a protracted conflict or limited military steps prove unsuccessful in the 2-year-old civil war.

Any Republican who supports the use of force resolution essentially will be siding with Obama, who is despised in conservative circles, and a vote in favor could anger more isolationist Republicans who are wary of getting involved in another military conflict after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The votes could dog Republican candidates with voters in early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even the most nuanced explanation for a vote could be undermined by events on the ground.

Yet if Republicans with White House ambitions oppose the resolution, they could be accused of giving Syrian President Bashar Assad a pass after his regime used chemical weapons.

Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, said a vote in favor of the resolution would be the equivalent of "a purchase of stock over the long-term in Obama's decision-making on Syria."

"Any Republican may go into a vote thinking, 'I have given authority for a limited scope of action to the president,' but the reality is you're buying stock in the president's current decisions on Syria and also his future actions in any escalation that may occur," Schmidt said.

Polls show public opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria, regardless of whether Syria's government used chemical weapons on its people, and doubts about airstrikes across party lines.

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