House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio listens as President Barack Obama speaks to media, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, before a meeting between the president and Congressional leaders to discuss the situation in Syria.
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama won critical support from
House Speaker John Boehner for a punitive strike against Syria on
Tuesday and dispatched senior Cabinet officials to persuade Congress
that Bashar Assad's government must be punished for a suspected chemical
weapons attack the administration blames for more than 1,000 dead.
The leader of House Republicans, Boehner emerged from a meeting at
the White House and said the United States has "enemies around the world
that need to understand that we're not going to tolerate this type of
behavior. We also have allies around the world and allies in the region
who also need to know that America will be there and stand up when it's
Boehner spoke as lawmakers in both parties were at work on the
president's requested legislation, rewriting it to restrict the type and
duration of military action that would be authorized, possibly
including a ban on U.S. combat forces on the ground.
Obama said he was open to revisions in the relatively broad request
the White House made over the weekend. He expressed confidence Congress
would respond to his call for support in a military action against
Assad, whose government the president said used chemical weapons
indiscriminately and "killed thousands of people, including over 400
The exact toll put forth by the administration is 1,429 dead.
Casualty estimates by other groups from the attack on Aug. 21 in a
Damascus suburb are far lower, and Assad's government blames the episode
on rebels who have been seeking to overthrow his government in a civil
war that began over two years ago. A United Nations inspection team is
awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in
the country before completing a closely watched report.
The president met top lawmakers at the White House before embarking
on an overseas trip to Sweden and Russia, leaving the principal lobbying
at home for the next few days to Vice President Joe Biden and other
members of his administration.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry as
well as Gen. John Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were
on the witness list for a hastily called Senate Foreign Relations
Committee hearing Tuesday afternoon. The session shaped up as the first
of several Congress is expected to hold in the run-up to a vote as early
as next week on Obama's request for congressional backing for a strike
At the United Nations, meanwhile, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said
that any punitive action against Syria could unleash more turmoil and
bloodshed, and he cautioned that such strikes would be legal only in
self-defense under the U.N. Charter or if approved by the organization's
Security Council. Russia and China have repeatedly used their veto
power in the council to block action against Assad.
In the Middle East, Israel and the U.S. conducted a joint missile
test over the Mediterranean in a display of military in the region.
Obama set the fast-paced events in motion on Saturday, when he
unexpectedly stepped back from ordering a military strike under his own
authority and announced he would seek congressional approval.
Recent presidents have all claimed the authority to undertake limited
military action without congressional backing. Some have followed up
with such action.
Obama said he, too, believes he has that authority, and House
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said during the day that even Congress'
refusal to authorize the president wouldn't negate the power of the
commander in chief.
Still, the president also has stated that the United States will be
stronger if lawmakers grant their support. But neither Obama nor his
aides has been willing to state what options would be left to him should
Congress reject his call.
His decision to seek congressional approval presents lawmakers with a challenge, as well.
As Obama has often noted, the country is weary of war after more than
a decade of combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, and there is
residual skepticism a decade after Bush administration claims went
unproven that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
At the same time, even some of Obama's sternest critics in Congress
expressed strong concerns about the repercussions of a failure to act.
House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va., said after Tuesday's White
House meeting that a failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons
"only increases the likelihood of future WMD (weapons of mass
destruction) use by the regime, transfer to Hezbollah, or acquisition by
Apart from the meeting with Obama, the White House provided closed-door briefings for members of Congress.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said after attending one session that
administration officials told lawmakers that the targets the military
had identified last week were still present, despite the highly public
discussion of a possible attack. "Seems strange to see some targets
still available several weeks later," Flake said, adding that he was
"still listening" to the administration's lobbying.
Others were firmly opposed. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said on Fox
News, "It may sound real easy when people like Secretary Kerry say that
'it is going to be quick and we're going to go in, we're going to send a
few cruise missiles, wash our hands and go home.' It doesn't work that
way. This could be a war in the Middle East, it's serious."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has close ties to tea party groups, said
he probably would vote against authorizing Obama to use force. But he
said it also wouldn't be helpful to amend the resolution in a way that
constrains the president too much to execute military action, if
Democrats, too, were divided, although it appeared the
administration's biggest concern was winning support among deeply
conservative Republicans who have battled with the president on issue
after issue since winning control of the House three years ago.
The United States maintains a significant military force in the
eastern Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Navy released one of the warships
that had been in the region, leaving four destroyers armed with cruise
missiles, the USS Stout, USS Gravely, USS Ramage and USS Barry. Also in
the area was an amphibious warship, the USS San Antonio, with about 300
In addition, there are two aircraft carriers in the region - the USS
Nimitz strike group, which is in the southern Red Sea, and the USS Harry
S Truman, which is in the Arabian Sea.
While announcing his support for military action and urging fellow
Republicans to come to the same conclusion, Boehner firmly put the
burden of rounding up votes on the administration
Shortly after Boehner left the White House after the meeting, his
spokesman Michael Steel said, "Everyone understands that it is an uphill
battle to pass a resolution, and the speaker expects the White House to
provide answers to members' questions and take the lead on any whipping
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was noncommittal
about Obama's request. "While we are learning more about his plans,
Congress and our constituents would all benefit from knowing more about
what it is he thinks needs to be done_and can be accomplished_in Syria
and the region," McConnell said in a statement.
Obama's trip this week includes stops in Stockholm and then St.
Petersburg, Russia, where he will be attending the Group of 20 economic