Senate Committee Approves Use of Force in Syria: 5 Takeaways

Members agreed to send an authorization for military action on to the Senate, but the 10-7 vote shows the deep remaining cleavages.
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Reuters

The White House push for military intervention in Syria has cleared its first major hurdle -- but not with much room to spare.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 Wednesday afternoon to approve a resolution that gives the Obama Administration the right to act against Bashar al-Assad's regime following chemical-weapons attacks. The vote sends the resolution on to the full Senate for another vote, where the smart money seems to be that it will squeak through, and then on to the House, where things are more opaque.

Here's what today's vote tells us:

1. John Kerry's lackluster performance yesterday didn't sink Obama's policy. Kerry's first star turn as secretary of state in front of his old colleagues on Tuesday was widely panned. Kerry was meandering and vague. He indulged in strange analogies to the Holocaust. And perhaps worst of all for political purposes, he managed to suggest that the White House wouldn't rule out sending U.S. troops in on the ground, then had to extract himself from his own trap. Still, the committee came down on his side.

2. John McCain was (sort of) bluffing. Wednesday morning, the hawkish Republican reportedly said he wouldn't vote for the Senate resolution authorizing force, finding it too narrow. He wanted the White House's version, though he found even that too narrow. (Philip Bump at The Atlantic Wire has a great rundown on the differences between the White House and Senate resolution drafts.) But he managed to find a way to vote for the bill by co-sponsoring, with Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, an amendment stipulating that U.S. policy is to "change the momentum'' in Syria's ongoing civil war -- even though Obama insists any strike at this moment is purely punishment for the use of chemical weapons. Apparently McCain decided the need to guarantee American credibility outweighed his reservations, but how meaningfully the resolution changes the shape of action remains to be seen. Coons suggested it was little more than a framing device.

3. Marco Rubio has moved solidly to the no camp. The Florida senator and presidential hopeful was once a leading voice in favor of moving to topple Bashar al-Assad. But as Politico pointed out this morning, he's gradually shifted away from that stance, saying it's too late and aligning himself more closely with fellow 2016 contender Rand Paul. He voted against the resolution today, as did Paul.

4. Ed Markey won't get in line. The Massachusetts legislator is the newest member of the Senate, after what seems like decades of waiting in the wings. But even though he replaced Kerry, and even though Obama stumped for him ahead of his special election in July, Markey refused to vote for the resolution, instead casting a "present" vote. Ouch.

5. Democrats aren't presenting a unified front. Among the no votes today were liberal Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Chris Murphy of Connecticut. The three Republican yes votes: McCain, Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee's ranking members.

Now it's on to the full body. Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he will hold a vote next week, when senators return from a five-week recess.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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