WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration on Sunday confidently predicted congressional backing for limited military action in Syria and asserted that the Assad government used sarin gas in the deadly chemical attack that threatens to draw the U.S. into another Mideast conflict.
Senior U.S. officials sought to lay out their case to divided lawmakers in a classified briefing as the countdown began to the biggest foreign policy vote since Congress authorized President George W. Bush to invade Iraq.
In a series of interviews on the Sunday news shows, Secretary of State John Kerry said the case for intervention in Syria’s 2½-year civil war was strengthening each day and that he expected American lawmakers to recognize the need for action when the “credibility of the United States is on the line.”
He said President Barack Obama has the authority to launch retaliatory strikes with or without Congress’ approval, but Kerry stopped short of saying the president would do so if the House or Senate withholds support.
“The stakes are just really too high here,” Kerry said. “We are not going to lose this vote.”
Seeking to sharpen the argument for war, Kerry said the United States has received hair and blood samples from first responders indicating that Syria’s government forces used sarin in its Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburbs.
It was the first piece of specific physiological evidence cited by the administration, which previously cited only an unnamed nerve agent in the killing of 1,429 civilians, including more than 400 children. The U.S. says such chemical weapons use compels an international response.
Washington has struggled to rally allies to its cause, however, with only France firmly on board among major military powers. Stalwart ally Britain cannot be counted on after Parliament rejected using force in a vote last week. That could be a harbinger of the difficult task ahead for the Obama administration as it seeks Congress’ approval for cruise missile strikes and other limited measures once lawmakers return from summer break, which is scheduled to end Sept. 9.
A little more than a year ago, Obama declared that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be the “red line” in a conflict that he has steadfastly avoided. But Obama deferred any immediate action Saturday by announcing that he first would seek congressional authorization.
Senior administration officials were briefing members of Congress in private later Sunday. Further classified meetings would be held over the next three days, Kerry said. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans a Tuesday hearing.
Navy ships are on standby in the Mediterranean Sea ready to launch missiles.
Obama is likely to find strong support in the Democrat-controlled Senate but a tougher fight in the GOP-dominated House.
Despite the intense gridlock on Capitol Hill over debt reduction, health care, immigration and other issues, at least some senior lawmakers said the president should be able to cobble together a strong enough coalition of moderate and hawkish members of both parties to defeat anti-war Democrats and tea party-backed Republicans opposed to intervention.
“We cannot make this about the president versus the Congress. This isn’t about Republicans versus Democrats. This has a very important worldwide reach,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “At the end of the day, Congress will rise to the occasion,” he said, but added that “it’s going to take that healthy debate to get there.”