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February 11, 2016

Senate’s Syria Resolution Sets Time Limits, Won’t Authorize Ground Troops (Updated)

Updated 9:10 p.m. | Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders have reached an agreement on the language for the resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria for up to 90 days — but with no “boots on the ground.”

“Sharing President Obama’s view that our nation is best served when we come together as one, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has crafted a bipartisan Authorization for the Use of Military Force that we believe reflects the will and concerns of Democrats and Republicans alike,” Chairman Robert Menendez said Tuesday in a statement. “Together we have pursued a course of action that gives the President the authority he needs to deploy force in response to the Assad regime’s criminal use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, while assuring that the authorization is narrow and focused, limited in time, and assures that the Armed Forces of the United States will not be deployed for combat operations in Syria.”

The New Jersey Democrat scheduled a markup for Wednesday. Earlier Tuesday, Menendez noted that the new resolution would not permit American boots on the ground.

As drafted, the language worked out between Menendez and ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., would authorize the use of force for 60 days, with provisions making it possible that the authorization would be extended for 30 days after that, according to Senate sources.

While the Senate has authorization language to debate, that’s not yet the case in the House.

With the House and Senate expected to set deadlines for authorization votes by the end of next week, House leaders wouldn’t have much time to draft and approve their own rewrites, especially given the diverse and often free-wheeling membership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that could result in a marathon markup should that panel be given jurisdiction over the matter.

Following a lengthy Senate hearing on the request to use force against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, Corker told reporters that House leaders had not yet been brought into conversations about drafting the resolution on the Senate side.

“With the time frame that we’re looking at, it would be very difficult to be bringing in a lot of outside parties,” Corker said. “They’re going to have to address it in their own way.”

A senior House Democratic aide told CQ Roll Call that, throughout Tuesday, members of House leadership on both sides of the aisle had raised questions about what the implications would be if the clock ran out and the only viable resolution text came from the Senate. That aide suggested that many lawmakers thought being forced to take the Senate draft it could be a logistical blessing, averting the potential for an ugly partisan fight.

Speaker John A. Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, offered little insight other than to say, “The House certainly agrees with the Senate that the White House draft is inadequate.”

A House Republican leadership aide, however, seemed to quell speculation that the House GOP would be willing to forgo offering any input, saying, “House Republicans will vote on a resolution once we sufficiently feel it represents the will of our chamber and that will require significant input from our chairmen and members.”

When Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the Senate on Tuesday that he didn’t “want to take off the table” the possibility of American boots on the ground in Syria, the response underscored the difficulty in crafting acceptable legislative language.

Social media erupted when Kerry made the comment in response to a question from Menendez that under some hypothetical situations U.S. forces might end up deployed “in the event Syria imploded, for instance.”

After Corker and Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland each signaled an unease with Kerry’s remarks on that subject, Kerry clarified, saying that he would shut the door to that as part of the authorization now under debate.

Cardin noted the breadth of the original draft that was sent to Capitol Hill on Aug. 31, adding that Obama could always return to seek an expanded authorization.

“The president as commander-in-chief has the authority — the inherent authority — to act in urgent situations when time requires that action,” Cardin said. “I just [want] to urge you in the strongest possible terms to work with our leadership to draft a resolution that is as tight as we can make it to allow you to carry out the mission that you have defined here today.”

“I don’t want anybody misinterpreting this from earlier: This authorization does not contemplate, and should not have any allowance for any troop on the ground, I just want to make that absolutely clear,” Kerry said. “What I was doing was hypothesizing about a potential that might occur at some point in this time, but not in authorization.”

“There’s no problem in our having the language that has zero capacity for American troops on the ground within the authorization the president is asking for. I don’t want anybody in the media or elsewhere to misinterpret that,” Kerry added.

Kerry found himself facing questions about the scope of the authorization in no small part because the original draft was overly broad. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., was among those raising questions about why the legislative proposal was drafted in that fashion, asking specifically why the draft seems to conflict with numerous public statements by Kerry and others in the Obama administration.

The way the exchange with Udall developed, Kerry did not have an opportunity to answer that question.

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